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.
Just got off a 45 minute call with @Expedia and was told that my flight on @AmericanAir that I paid a premium for was rebooked with a connecting flight and I will not get refund because of @AmericanAir policy. 🤷🏾#Ihateamericanairline
— tweeter (@umarcarter) March 23, 2021
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).
@AmericanAir I waited over 2 hours for them to tell me that I had to call Priceline , after I spoke to the customer service rep at price line to call American. “ Debbie who is in resolutions department is no help and that lady should lose her job how she talks to people.
— Maria Noetzel (@MariaNoetzel) March 23, 2021
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.