Why you should think twice before booking with an obscure online travel agency

Mar 4, 2021

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Booking cheap flights or mistake fares can be an exciting but sometimes fraught process, which often includes searching for tickets on obscure travel agency (OTA) sites. 

The travel world buzzed late Wednesday evening after discovering dirt-cheap business class flights to Europe on TAP Air Portugal. But TPG’s loyalty and engagement editor Richard Kerr found something troubling during checkout. Several lesser-known OTAs were pricing the fares lower than other competitors, but with terms and conditions that essentially absolved them of responsibility should something go awry.

For instance, the OTA SnapTravel, which bills itself as able to find travelers the cheapest fares using its “unique flight search algorithm,” pretty much says travelers are on their own after booking:

We do not provide cash or credit card refunds under any circumstances.

If the airline cancels or reschedules your flight, or fails to honor your ticket for any reason, we will extend a credit toward a future trip of equal or greater value to the same geographical region in our sole discretion. The foregoing is our sole responsibility in connection with the airline’s cancellation or rescheduling of any trip, or the airline’s failure to honor a ticket.

EDreams’ policy is similarly confusing:

Air fares contain different elements and not all of them are refundable, so even if you are eligible to be refunded according to your travel supplier(s)’ policies, the refunded amount may not be exactly the total price paid for your booking.

GoToGate’s policy is a bit more straightforward — it says it’ll refund you if you’re eligible — but that its “service fees” are non-refundable. These fees are pretty costly and can run you $71 per traveler and $30 per booking for a refund if the airline cancels on you.

Please note that our service fees are non-refundable. This is because the service fees are charged for our mediation services which shall be considered fulfilled when the booking has been confirmed to You.

If you’re wondering whether OTAs such as SnapTravel are legally permitted to deny refunds to travelers — the answer is no. 

The Department of Transportation (DOT) says airlines must provide written notice on or with the ticket “concerning any ‘incorporated’ contract terms that restrict refunds or impose monetary penalties” after purchase — even if that ticket was booked through an OTA.

For domestic flights, as well as international ones departing or arriving the U.S., you’re covered by the rules of the DOT. If your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a full refund back to your original form of payment for the unused portion of your itinerary. In addition to the DOT’s guidelines, airline tickets are governed by each carrier’s contract of carriage.

Last year, the DOT issued a stark message to airlines that serve the U.S., reminding them that they must provide cash refunds to travelers whose flights are canceled by the airline.

The agency said that “carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.”

Related: These cancellation horror stories show why you should think twice before booking through an OTA

Bottom line

All OTAs aren’t created equally, but more reputable sites like Expedia at least make their policies clearer. Still, booking through an OTA complicates things further since they need to check with the airline if they can process a refund on your behalf.

Booking through an OTA may work out just fine when things go according to plan, but it’s a whole different story when travel arrangements change — or when they don’t follow the rules. In that case, it’s much easier to just deal with the airline or hotel directly

Featured photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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