Here’s Why You Don’t Want To Book Airline Tickets Through Online Agents Like Expedia

When travel booking went online that put a lot of information in the hands of consumers and reduced the cost of booking tickets. It largely took people (agents) out of the middle. Something was lost in the process – expert guidance on what flights are best to book for reliability, like whether a one hour connection in Chicago during the winter is advisable or whether to take the last flight of the day.

There’s a huge opportunity to improve the online booking experience and nobody has really done it. I thought Google, with its ability to know a consumer’s habits and searches, would step into the breach through AI but that hasn’t happened.

Most people use sites like Expedia or Kayak to compare options because they don’t start off knowing they want to fly American Airlines or United. They find the schedule and price they’re looking for, and then book what looks best. Orbitz, now owned by Expedia, actually began as a competitor owned by the airlines. Priceline was in part owned by its participating airlines as well. Those sites didn’t limit you to booking flights on a single airline or its partners.

While it can be useful for the average consumer to search flights with Expedia or the like, it’s not actually a good idea to buy travel from them unless they are able to construct complicated itineraries at a lower price than booking directly. Instead, find the flights you want and then go straight to the airline to buy your ticket.

Two recent passenger tweets to American Airlines illustrate why.

Online Travel Agencies Have Their Own Rules, That May Be More Stringent Than An Airline’s

When you book through an online travel agency, the agency may impose fees for changes on top of what the airline may charge. You might be entitled to a free change under airline rules, but the site you’ve booked through may charge you a service fee to make that change.

They might also refuse to refund a ticket when you’re entitled to a refund under fare rules. During the pandemic online travel agency sites became well-known for refusing to refund tickets for cancelled flights even when the airlines were willing to issue a refund. The ‘OTAs’ wanted you to keep flight credits so they could keep their commissions.

This practice is likely even illegal. The U.S. Department of Transportation is clear that when airlines cancel flights, customers are due refunds for those flights – and that DOT refund rules apply to online travel agencies, not just airlines.

There’s Someone Standing Between You And Getting Help When Things Go Wrong

Generally speaking online travel agencies make money by automating the booking process. They spend a lot on advertising to get consumer eyeballs, and then try to service those eyeballs as inexpensively as possible. Customer service is often outsourced, agents aren’t empowered, and wait times can be long.

Once you finally get through to someone at the booking site, they may not understand your issue or how to fix it. You may get put on hold again, or transferred, and have to start all over with your story. Never believe you’ll actually get a promised call back.

The online travel agency may tell you to call the airline. But the airline will say wait – this is an agency-booked ticket. Agencies are expected to service their own bookings. If you didn’t book directly with the airline, and the airline had to pay a commission on the sale, they aren’t going to help out in advance most of the time (day of travel at the airport is a different story).

Now, if you’ve booked through an online travel agency and need help from an airline all hope isn’t lost – but the airline may charge you a fee to ‘take over the ticket’ and that fee can be as much as $100.

If the online travel agency and airline are pointing fingers back-and-forth, consider conference calling them together. This can be tough will long hold times, and each side may resist. The fact that you’d need to resort to this underscores why you should avoid getting a third party involved in the transaction in the first place if at all possible, of course.

That Doesn’t Mean You Should Never Work Through An Agent

Sometimes you want to buy a ticket that you cannot price directly with an airline, or that the airline’s pricing engines are charging more for. The savings or convenience of booking this ticket could outweigh the risks of dealing with customer service problems.

And there are actually good agents out there whose business model isn’t based on providing the lowest cost servicing and keeping commissions at the expense of customers. I do not know very many of these, because most good travel advisors don’t like touching airfare at all if they can avoid it. A good exception of course it Brett Snyder’s Cranky Concierge which specializes in handling complex itineraries and solving problems when they arise.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I learned this lesson the hard way when I spent a total of 40 hours on hold trying to get a hold of someone, anyone, from Amex travel last March. Never again. The only exception for me is when I use Amex FHR for non prepaid bookings. Note, that since I made a rule that I never use OTAs, this severely affected the valuations of all my credit card points since I don’t redeem them using credit card travel portals anymore.

  2. I used Priceline to book rental cars until I had a last flight of the day cancel at DTW and a rental car waiting at DAY. My wife, who was flying into DAY from a different location was unable to pick up the rental since it was in my name. The Avis station at DAY was as nice as could be but was helpless to do anything, I had to go thru Priceline. To make a (very) long story short, Priceline’s phone service was less than ideal– way, way less. I haven’t used Priceline (or any of the OTA’s) since. Sure, you can save a few bucks here and there, but does it make up for what could be a major hassle if things go wrong?

  3. CAVEAT:
    From my experience in 2020, I would never, ever purchase anything from a third party. Whatever their discount is, it is not worth the aggravation when flying stops and you’re left on your own, as the third parties conveniently claim they cannot take any action until the airline does.

    In my case, I purchased from Business Class in Florida a business class ticket from ORD-Spain; I would still be left hanging if I did not invoke the common sense of fraud to the bank issuing my credit card: that I never received the product or service that I paid the airline. Within a month, the bank refunded all but $300, which the third party Business Class retained (for what, as they too did not perform an acceptable service?)

  4. This is also why I will never use Chase Ultimate Rewards travel again. When the pandemic hit it was a NIGHTMARE to deal with them on all the changes and cancellations. I want all those hours of my life back again please.

  5. I had booked a multi airline itinerary with Expedia on a trip to Asia. Needed to make a change but had to call during Expedia during US business hours, who couldn’t get a hold of anyone at China Airlines because they were closed during US business hours! Finally found someone at China airlines to take over the ticket but what a mess!

  6. @ Gary — You definitely need an editor. You post could have just said “because Expedia sucks”. 🙂

  7. Life goes full circle. Nobody in their right mind ever uses an OTA for anything but research only. Then you go to a proper Travel Agent, Hotel Group or Airline to haggle and book. Meantime keep screen dumps of every step you take. Online Booking with OTAs is a passport to denial, frustration and in essence a scam. Meantime all travel sold their soul to algorithms that maximise profits and revenues, whilst making sure that there is little or no redress or contact for the Consumer. Oddly, Covid has neutralised all this and many will be Bust before they realise their folly.

  8. Not sure I agree with @Steven. Had booked a 6-leg itinerary on AF and DL (partners, right??) to TLV from PBI. I used Amex Platinum Travel for the reservation, as well as some land items.
    Because I know enough to “garden” my upcoming trips, I looked one week before to find that the AF legs had simply disappeared. No explanation from AF, and I was told they were cancelled, and the business class seats were no longer available.
    The agent at Amex was able to reconstruct the itinerary, after 6 hours back and forth with AF.
    I could not have accomplished what the Amex rep was able to do.

  9. There’s also the 96-hour cancellation window if you book a flight on a Friday with Priceline:

    Not only can you cancel for free (single-click online–no agent required) but it’s a full refund back to the original form of payment–not a credit for a future flight.

    Additionally, the crappy “not valid within 7 days” rule does not apply. You can literally book a ticket on a Monday for travel the very next day and cancel it 5 minutes before the flight takes off for a full refund.

  10. Echoing all the comments here. Gary was kind enough to offer me advice mid-2020 with a monumental Chase (aka Expedia) screw up of QR’s flexible change policy. Got DOT involved, eventually got all the cash back. But yeah, this massively changes the “book through our portal” calculus of many card/points issuers, including the CSR.

  11. I kinda use OTA’s as a phonebook of sorts, searching an area to see what hotels are available. Most of the time, the hotel itself can match the rate, so no need for an OTA booking anymore. A few years of getting the infamous “Priceline room” at several hotels cured me of that. No thanks.

  12. Is booking through AMEX platinum travel service any better? I would hope they provide a higher level of service to their premium customers

  13. Google can’t improve the search too much because airline websites and OTAs are so bad it would easily end up with 80% of the market and lobbyists would use it against Google Inc.

    However Google’s current bare-bones engine is still way better than airline websites and OTAs

  14. With current low airfares, using the Chase or Amex portals can save on points. Eg a United flight for 50,000 UA points on their website, or 36,000 UR points on the Chase website. But it sounds like you lose all flexibility for changes?

  15. Rather than use Expedia or the like to compare airlines and prices, I find Google Flights does a great job. I booked a ticket for friend yesterday to fly FRA-MSY. I wanted to put her on AA so I could upgrade her to J. When I priced FRA-DFW-MSY on, it priced out at $2,653 in Y. Google Flights showed the same ticket for €298 in basic economy and €383 in regular economy (I had to go with the latter in order to use the upgrade). Using the link from Google Flights I think I was taken to the AA Germany website, but I was still buying from AA.

  16. @Retired Lawyer, @Der Fliegende Amerikaner Amex Platinum Travel is a real travel agency. You can do everything with them on-line, if you want. There also are 100s of representative travel agencies that are part of Amex Travel Related Services. But Amex Plat. Travel is NOT in the category of “online travel agency” that Gary is referencing in this post.

  17. I booked my business class ticket with Expedia for 2020’s travel in May as it was about $1000 cheaper than booking directly with the airline. The fight was cancel by Japan Airline in March 2020. My friend booked the same flight with Japan Airline directly and got a refund within 14 days after it was cancelled. Expedia initially stated that it will refund me 14 days after the actually date, but when the time came, they refused to refund my ticket and insisted on giving me a credit for future flights with them. I told them that I don’t want a credit since with COVID-19, God knows I maybe dead by 2021 and they would pocket the money. I contacted Amex Platinum and gave them all the information, got my money back within 14 days. That was my first and only time booking with Expedia, and no more. Thank goodness for Amex Platinum or it would have been a big headache.

  18. Last time i used AMEX Travel it ticketed via Expedia???? and then there were problems Amex was not HELPFUL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. Your endorsement of Cranky Flyer is spot on. Brett and his team are bulldogs in fixing problems. If they can’t get it done, it likely truly is impossible. Well worth the relatively low cost.

    And no, I do not work for Brett, nor are we related. 🙂 I’m just a fan of his company and his work.

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