When planning a trip, I often wind up on the website of at least one of the major online travel agencies: Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia.
But after deciding which airline I want to use and my preferred dates and times of travel, I always go to the airline's website to book directly. I follow the same practice with rental cars. Hotels are a bit different, but we'll get to that in a moment.
Though Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia and their counterparts are invaluable for learning what is available before booking airfare, I almost never see a reason to involve a third party when booking travel. It's generally no cheaper, it doesn't add rewards or points, and when something goes wrong, it only adds a layer of bureaucracy.
As a regular reader of Christopher Elliott's “Travel Troubleshooter” column, in which the travel writer and consumer advocate assists readers with travel-related problems, I noticed that a disproportionate number of complaints result from using an intermediary to book travel.
Sure enough, Elliott said, that is the case.
“The biggest issue is that the service just is not there,” Elliott said. “You call an online travel agency, and your call is routed to a call center, where you're dealing with script-reading drones. That's extremely frustrating.”
Further, he said, if an issue arises, a customer is likely to get stuck in a pass-the-buck volley between the third-party website and the company that provided the service, especially if it's an airline. Part of the problem, Elliott said, is that the online travel agencies have limited power when it comes to getting around airline rules.
“Their hands are tied,” he said. “The rules are very strict sometimes, especially the no-refundability rules.”
That's why I generally favor booking with an airline directly: The airline is more invested in keeping a customer happy if it, and not an online travel agent, got your business.
That said, there are some advantages to booking through a third-party website, experts say. One is stitching together complicated trips on more than one airline. Having a trip with multiple legs on multiple airlines on one ticket can provide an advantage if something goes wrong, said Brett Snyder, who blogs about travel at crankyflier.com. It also can be the cheapest way to travel.
“There could be a pricing advantage to having multiple airlines on one ticket, and a complex itinerary will be found by those websites,” Snyder said.
Another benefit is that cheaper hotel rooms occasionally can be found via online travel agencies that reserve large blocks of rooms. (Though, that said, if you ask the hotel directly for that reduced rate, it usually will match it.)
Online travel agencies also can supply deals when bundling services, such as airfare, hotel and rental car, in a single package.
But, of course, the biggest benefit of websites such as Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia is the ability to compare fares — even if your next stop is an airline's website.