Airlines vs. Online Travel Agencies: Which is better when you need to buy flights?

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Airlines sell flight tickets. Online travel agencies (OTAs) like Orbitz and Expedia sell the same flight tickets. So is it ever better to buy flights from an OTA versus booking directly with the airline? To answer that question, let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of using an online travel agency, as well as the advantages of booking with the airline.

What are the advantages of booking flights with an online travel agency?

1. The same flights may be cheaper on an online travel agency website.

Airlines offer financial incentives to online travel agencies, which are often passed on to the customer in the form of discounted flights. For example, you might find flights from Dallas to New York for $375 on the American Airlines website. A quick search on Orbitz returns the exact same flights for $325. The takeaway here is that even if you’re only interested in flights from a particular airline, it’s worth your time to also check an OTA or two.

2. It’s faster to find suitable flights on an OTA website rather than searching multiple airline websites.

Since OTAs offer flights from nearly all major airlines, you can quickly compare things like prices, durations, and stops. Using sort and filter functions can make this process even faster. Some OTAs have search features like low-fare calendars for those who have flexible travel plans. If you’re looking for the widest range of options in the shortest amount of time, it makes sense to book flights with an OTA.

That being said, you can also use tools like Google Flights to search, then book your flights on the airline website of your choice – also a fast and easy option.

3. Online travel agencies offer multi-airline flight itineraries.

Most online travel agencies don’t just offer the same flights that are available on airline websites, they mix and match flights from different airlines. The result can be flight combinations that are super cheap, super convenient, or both. This means that you can often save money AND spend less time traveling by booking flights with an OTA. In contrast, airline websites sell only their own and partner airlines’ flights.

4. Online travel agencies allow you to earn both frequent flyer miles and OTA loyalty points.

Some of the larger online travel agencies (Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity) have their own loyalty programs that allow you to earn rewards to use toward free or discounted travel. Unlike hotel loyalty programs, frequent flyer programs allow you to earn miles and OTA loyalty points for the same flights. If the idea of double dipping on points and miles appeals to you, then it makes sense to book flights with an OTA.

Disadvantages of booking flights with an OTA

1. An online travel agency is a third party, which makes solving problems more complicated.

If you experience flight irregularities or require a refund, dealing with an online travel agency can be more difficult than simply dealing with the airline directly. There are many cases where the airline claims the situation is the fault of the OTA while the OTA blames the airline. In the meantime, the traveler gets the runaround, which exacerbates the stress inherent in air travel.

To minimize the chance that you get stuck in the middle between two unhelpful customer service departments, choose an OTA with large operations and good customer service reputations. For instance, we book flights with Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity and have had generally good experiences with all three. The customer service at large, well-known OTAs certainly isn’t perfect, but then airline customer service can be downright horrible, so it’s all relative (as so many things in life are).

2. Not all OTAs offer free 24-hour cancellation.

Airlines departing from the USA are required to offer free ticket cancellation within 24 hours of purchase. The same isn’t true of online travel agencies, and many don’t offer this convenience. Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity are three OTAs that do allow travelers to cancel flight tickets within 24 hours of purchase.

3. OTAs offer multi-airline flight itineraries.

Multi-airline itineraries offered by online travel agencies can save you a lot of money. However, when you book a roundtrip multi-airline itinerary from an OTA, it’s important to know that you’re really buying two or more one-way flights. If you need to cancel flights, it becomes more complicated since you may need to deal with each airline separately depending on their cancellation policies.

Which Online Travel Agency Should I Book Flights With?

If you do choose to use an online travel agency to book flights, we recommend Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity for their prices, service, loyalty programs, and free 24 hour cancellation. All three OTAs are owned by the same parent company, Expedia Group.

Advantages of Booking Directly with the Airline

1. It’s (usually) easier to solve problems.

Air travel is inherently complicated and can at times be quite frustrating. As noted above, booking flights with an online travel agency introduces a third party into the transaction, which by definition adds an additional layer of complication. This can quickly turn a mildly exasperating situation into a travel nightmare, depending on which OTA you’re dealing with and how they respond to the situation. If you wish to avoid a middleman between you and the airline customer service department, then you should book directly with the airline.

2. Some airlines don’t sell flights through OTAs.

Southwest, budget airlines like Allegiant, and smaller regional carriers don’t sell flights through online travel agencies. If you want to fly on one of these airlines, or at least see prices to compare, you’ll need to search their website directly.

So, should you book with an OTA or with the airline?

Going back to our original question: when is it better to buy flights from an online travel agency and when is it better to buy directly from the airline? It depends what you’re looking for and how much time you want to devote to the search. To quickly sum it all up:

Search and/or book flights with OTAs when you want to:

  • See the lowest price possible with the shortest time spent searching
  • Quickly compare flight details: prices, airlines, stops, duration, seat types, fare classes, etc.
  • See multi-airline itineraries and fares
  • Earn both frequent flyer miles and OTA reward points

Search and/or book flights with airlines when you want to:

  • Avoid the complications of adding a third-party to your travel arrangements
  • Fly with, or see prices for, airlines that don’t sell flights through OTAs

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