Reader Question: Should I Buy My Airline Ticket Through An Online Travel Agency (OTA)?

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I redeem points for a lot of my flights but I also book many paid tickets.

Recently, I received a message inquiring about my thoughts concerning Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and whether it was a good choice to purchase travel.

It’s a great question and if you’re just getting started in the miles and points hobby, this information could prove vital in developing a strategy.

BOOK DIRECT OR THROUGH OTA?

First, if you’re unfamiliar with the term OTA, it simply refers to sites like Orbitz, Expedia, etc.

I’ve also found myself asking whether it was “better” to book through an airline’s website directly or through an online travel agency. There are advantages and disadvantages to using both strategies.

It’s worth noting that if you book an airline ticket through an OTA, you will earn airline miles just as you normally would. However, it’s a bit different with hotels. If you book a hotel through an OTA, typically you will not earn any hotel points.

Why? OTAs receive big commissions on hotel stays while their profits on airline tickets are minimal. If you have purchased a flight through an OTA lately, you may have noticed the OTA upselling and offering a vacation package, hotel, or car rental for just a few more dollars. That’s to increase their commission.

However, many OTAs now have their own loyalty programs for hotel stays, which some consumers may even prefer to those offered by hotel chains.

Advantages of Booking Through An OTA

One advantage of booking through an OTA is you’re probably getting the airline ticket or hotel for a cheaper rate which is a huge advantage.

Additionally, the law requires airlines to give you the option of either holding a ticket for 24 hours or getting a refund within 24 hours of purchase when booking flights to/from the US and booking directly with the airline.

However, OTAs will give you a refund within 24 hours even if you’re booking within a week of the flight, and the ticket doesn’t even touch US soil. This applies globally and without exception, so that’s amazing.

Furthermore, I also know that I’ll be able to reach a customer service agent at Orbitz/Expedia any hour of the day.

Caveat: Just because you can contact them doesn’t guarantee competence.

Disadvantages of Booking Through An OTA

In the case of irregular operations (i.e. flight cancellation, etc.), the airline may advise you to contact your OTA, while your OTA may advise you to contact your airline. You could end up in a never-ending loop pointing fingers. Thus OTAs can be a bit of a curse when things go wrong.

Additionally, I have found that most OTAs have horrible phone customer service. Your call will likely be addressed by a low quality, outsourced call centers. I’m not suggesting airline customer service lines are any better, but you’re more likely to receive a resolution speaking to the airline directly.

Lastly, you have to consider if selecting seats, entering your frequent flyer information, etc. are important. Sometimes it’s much easier to book through an airline’s website.

FINAL STAMP

Everyone has a different strategy when it comes to points, miles, hotels, and airlines.

Personally, I book all of my hotels directly with the hotel. You may be able to save a few dollars by booking through an OTA but as I said above, you will not earn hotel points or elite nights if you book through an OTA. Typically, I’m going for status and I need the elite nights so I need to book directly.

When it comes to airlines, I’ll book flights directly so I can select which seat or scope out my chances of an upgrade at the time of booking.

The only time I book through an OTA is if I:

  1. think I may want to cancel within 24 hours
  2. am within seven days of departure
  3. am not familiar with how the airline directly processes such refunds or;
  4. the price difference between buying direct and through an OTA is significant. I’ve had this happen many times so I purchased my ticket through the OTA.

When do you book flights directly with an airline, and when do you book through an OTA?

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