6 reasons to avoid booking through an online travel agency

May 1, 2020

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Since I’ve taken over the change and cancellation beat here at TPG, I’ve received tons of reader emails and Instagram messages with personal questions. I love helping our readers, and I quickly started noticing a pattern: most people were writing in with horror stories from travel booked with an online travel agency (OTA) like Expedia or Priceline.

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. I’ve always avoided using OTAs, but the coronavirus pandemic has really hammered my point home — it (almost) never makes sense to book through an OTA. Read on for why.

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In This Post

Cancellation and change fees are more punitive than booking direct

Did you know that many OTA impose fees for making changes and cancellations, in addition to whatever your airline charges? Yes, that’s right. For instance, Priceline charges $30 per ticket for any changes, cancellations or refunds. Kiwi.com also charges a handling fee for any voluntary changes that varies based on the fare you purchase.

In light of the coronavirus, all the major OTAs have pledged to match the policy of your travel provider (and omit their handling charges). So, say you booked a Delta ticket with Orbitz, you’ll be bound by Delta’s change fee waivers. But, before (and most likely after) the coronavirus, all the aforementioned fees applied.

(Photo by Zach Griff/ThePoints Guy)

Even though the big players have taken mercy on travellers, some smaller OTAs are still imposing their own penalties, even if an airline gives them the authorization to refund a ticket. For instance, a reader described that her ANA flight was cancelled, yet OVAGO only offered a refund less a $200 cancellation fee.

Though some OTAs never impose additional service charges, why would you complicate things and add a middleman to the process if you don’t need to? Unless you find a fare you can’t book directly with an airline or hotel, there’s little reason to use an OTA.

Getting a refund is like pulling teeth

One thing I’ve heard time and again is how hard it is to get a refund for cancelled flights or hotels, even if you’re entitled to one. Here’s the thing: some airlines are making it incredibly hard to determine if you’re eligible for a refund (hint: you most likely are). Booking through an OTA complicates things further, since they need to check with the airline if they can process a refund on your behalf.

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

And when the travel providers are stingy about refunds, don’t expect an OTA to go to bat for you when they’re communicating with the providers. As such, there’s a good chance you’re going to be stuck in a lot of back and forth between you, the travel provider and the OTA before getting the money you deserve.

It’s much easier to just deal with the airline or hotel directly. Even if you think it’s hard to deal with an airline or hotel, consider how much harder it is when you factor in another party (an OTA).

You may not earn points or elite credit

This one’s very simple. When you book hotels through OTAs, don’t expect to earn points or elite credit for your bookings. Most major chains consider these third-party bookings to be “ineligible rates,” so you’re out of luck if you’re trying to earn points towards your next redemption.

Westin St. John (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Likewise, if you booked a hotel through an OTA, don’t expect to receive any of your elite benefits. So, if you hold the Platinum Card from American Express, your complimentary Hilton Honors Gold and Marriott Bonvoy Gold status is meaningless if you decide to book through an OTA. Say goodbye to your free breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Maldives.

Note that same can’t be said for airlines. Unless you’re booking a basic economy fare (always be sure to double check), you’ll earn the same number of miles and elite-qualifying credit as if you booked directly with the airline. But I’ve described five other compelling reasons not to book an airline ticket with an OTA.

Customer support is essentially nonexistent

Anyone who has tried to get in touch with an OTA over the last two months can probably tell you horror stories of what it was like. For one, most have made it very hard to speak to a human unless you’re within a week of your scheduled travel. And even if you do manage to get in touch with someone, good luck getting a competent agent willing to work with your itinerary.

Related: When is it time to call your airline?

To reduce their costs as much as possible, OTAs have generally shied away from offering robust customer service. Instead, you’ll often be asked to complete all of your changes and ask any questions online. And only when things don’t work will you be given the option to speak to a phone representative.

The deals aren’t always that good

By now, you’re probably asking yourself why anyone would bother booking on an OTA. It almost always comes down to it being cheaper to book through an OTA than directly with the travel provider. But, I’d argue that it may not be as good of a deal as it appears.

Why? As I mentioned, you won’t earn hotel points or elite benefits on OTA bookings. If you have status that would otherwise give you free breakfast, parking, lounge access or late checkout, the value of these benefits can add up quickly. And if you booked through an OTA, you’re not entitled to any of them. Furthermore, most hotel chains have a best rate guarantee. If you find a lower rate on an OTA, be sure to first try matching the rate to the hotel chain. If you’re successful, not only will you score a prize, you’ll also get the matched rate and be eligible to earn your points.

Related: All about hotel best rate guarantees

But, you might argue that this logic doesn’t apply to flights since you still earn miles and no major airline price-matches. Nonetheless, you should always factor in the possibility of needing to make a change to your itinerary. In that case, you’re most likely going to be out an additional service charge in addition to whatever the airline charges you, as well as a ton of time navigating phone trees and waiting on hold.

So, even if it looks like a good deal on paper, always be sure to factor in the hidden costs too.

Good luck during blizzards and thunderstorms

What happens when your flight is significantly delayed or cancelled or you can’t make it to your hotel due to weather or other issues? Even though you’ll be guided by airline waivers if you book through an OTA, getting a phone rep who’s willing to help out, especially during a snowstorm, can be next to impossible.

And even if you do, they’ll typically follow the waivers to the letter of the law, whereas an airline agent may be more flexible. Don’t expect the same courtesies extended if you booked through an OTA.

Air Canada A220 during a blizzard in Montreal (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The same is true for hotels. I’ve needed to cancel hotels at the last minute when travel plans get derailed because of weather. For the few times I’ve booked through an OTA, I’ve always been told that I need to follow the written cancellation policy of the OTA. But, when I’ve booked direct, I’ve never had an issue getting the cancellation fee waived.

Bottom line

The coronavirus is going to change the future of travel in many ways. Hopefully, it’ll also convince people to stop booking most travel through OTAs.

As we’ve seen, the OTAs have been inflexible with refund requests, and they’re generally more punitive about changes and cancellations than the travel providers themselves. When things go wrong, it’s nearly impossible to speak to someone helpful. And when you consider all the time you need to spend on the phone and the hotel points you won’t earn, the deal you found on an OTA isn’t as good as it looks.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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