Travel

Is it Better to Book Travel Directly or Use an Online Travel Agency?

Each has its merits, but what's the better way to pay?

It’s hard to beat the convenience of online travel agencies, such as Expedia and Priceline, when shopping for the cheapest airfare or choosing a hotel. OTAs not only aggregate flights, accommodations, rental cars and vacation packages but also let you compare options by price, user rating and other criteria. Sometimes they offer discounts and attractive package deals, too. But it doesn’t always make sense to book with an OTA.

When direct is better. For domestic travel, prices are similar when you book directly or through a third-party site, says Douglas Quinby, vice president of research at Phocuswright, a travel-industry research firm. But going to the source has benefits: It’s easier to compare fare options and bundled fees on an airline’s website, for example. Plus, third-party sites are not currently bound by the federal rule requiring U.S. airlines to give travelers 24 hours to hold or cancel a ticket. Many sites mention a similar window for canceling, but the policies are not always spelled out.

Hotel chains such as Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott offer small discounts to their loyalty members for reserving directly, and you usually have to book directly to earn rewards points. Plus, “there is a good amount of anecdotal evidence that hotels treat people better when they book directly,” says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of travel publisher Frommer’s.

Travel forums and consumer review sites detail a slew of instances in which OTAs bungle customer service when things go wrong. Plus, changing or canceling your flight or itinerary can cost extra, and some smaller sites charge a service fee for booking. For example, Priceline adds $30 on top of the airline’s change fee if you need to modify your itinerary; CheapOair, Vayama and others slap on $100 or more. If you need to cancel a nonrefundable fare, credit may or may not be available through the airline. Southwest, Allegiant and many international budget airlines aren’t searchable on OTAs, so you need to look up their fares separately.

To cover your bases, use a meta-search engine, such as Kayak, to compare OTA rates with prices from the airlines, hotels and car rental companies, then weigh how much the savings mean to you.

When OTAs get the nod. If you’re planning an international trip, an online travel agency is a good way to simplify the booking process and find low rates. “The hotel market is more fragmented, and airfares are more competitive, so you will see a lot more variation in price,” says Quinby. OTAs often cobble together complex itineraries using multiple airlines in a way that would be difficult—and time-consuming—to replicate yourself.

If you’re not loyal to a certain brand, you may benefit from an OTA’s rewards program, such as the Hotels.com “free night” reward after you stay at eligible properties for 10 nights. You can also find good value using an OTA to bundle flights with hotels or cars, especially for popular destinations. Before you decide to buy, price each component separately to be sure you’re getting a good deal, and check for inflexible cancellation and change policies, such as nonrefundable rates. For an expensive, special vacation, you may feel more comfortable piecing the trip together yourself—or letting a traditional travel agent plan it.

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