There are edge cases where it makes sense to book through an online travel agency and there are (very) modest rewards for doing so. I needed to book a ticket originating in India, and that involved a single airline, one flight a codeshare, and unique fare construction. Booking through an online agency was cheaper than booking direct. I traded off that savings, though, for pounding my head on the desk when I needed to make a change to the booking.
— gary leff (@garyleff) July 27, 2023
In fairness to the agent perhaps they were confused between Washington Dulles (IAD) and Bush Intercontinental (IAH)? Except… that wasn’t the only mistake in their sentence.
Expedia allows online changes, as they kept reminding me every time I reached out to someone for help after the website told me that online changes weren’t available for the itinerary.
I wasn’t the traveler. I did some sleuthing and priced what I thought the change would cost on my own, and then contacted Expedia to verify that they’d be able to do it. The first agent quoted me a price roughly equal to what I expected. I checked with the traveler, went back to Expedia, and the next agent quoted me the same price on the first segment, and nearly $2,000 more (!) on the second.
But this was Expedia, so I figured I’d just try someone else. The next agent quoted me a $200 higher price on the first segment, and that $2,000 higher than the first agent price on the second. Oy.
Let’s try this again. Another agent, after about 10 minutes of research, told me that there was no availability to change the first segment at all so they couldn’t do it.
One more run at customer service, before trying another route, of banging my head against a different wall, trying to get someone to take over the booking. This time I found an agent who repriced it the way I expected, and the way the first agent had done it. I took it. Now I wait to ensure that tickets actually get re-issued.
There are reasons to book through an online travel agency.
- Sometimes you’ll get better pricing
- Expedia’s country-specific websites, for fares originating in those countries and not available outside of those countries can be helpful (though those aren’t as common as they used to be)
- And there are sometimes glitches with the settlement tables for specific country sales, involving specific airlines and destinations, that may drop out part of a ticket’s price (such as surcharges)
- Plus there are rewards, however small, for going through a shopping portal to an online agency sometimes and of course the agency’s own rewards program.
At the same time you’ll almost invariably get worse customer service than dealing with an airline directly. A travel agent is supposed to be your advocate, not an impediment, but with online travel agencies who make money by driving down the cost of servicing a ticket (underinvesting in customer service) it’s often a game of telephone with two cups and a strike between you and the airline with the agency in the middle. And the agent you work with, perhaps with a wait to reach an outsourced employee with little authority who themselves must wait to reach a supervisor, is often unhelpful in the extreme.
I’ve covered issues with Expedia before, for instance how they say it is common for customers with prepaid rental car bookings to lose their reservation and be out the money when their flight gets delayed; about refusing to refund a hotel stay after the hotel didn’t honor the booking leaving a guest without a hotel room or their money; about a guest getting stuck with a $4,600 resort fee on an Expedia booking; and here’s a cautionary tale about booking airline tickets through 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 usually 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.