Online travel agents like Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity and Expedia are handy, touchy-feely tools that many Internet users find useful when booking hotel and airline reservations. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that these tools are travel agents, and just like the travel agent down at the local strip mall, they take a commission from any booking you make. Conversely, since airlines control inventory, they should have the best idea of what prices and volumes they have and 99% of the time will offer the best price. Most airlines even have best price guarantees to promote this.
There are, however, instances in which an online travel agent are useful. In addition to the easy-to-use interfaces, areas in which the TA might help are if they were to:
- Have negotiated a discount (ie, corporate or consolidator) with the airline. In this case you need to pay particular attention to the fare class that you’re booked in; many consolidator tickets, for example, some from airfare.com or your local Chinatown TA don’t qualify for frequent flyer miles.
- Combine a series of tickets into one itinerary. For example, last April when I was trying to find a cheap ticket to Buenos Aires I checked all of the canonical search engines and could only find tickets for 1100$. Orbitz, however came up with a price that was 300$ cheaper. Why? Because they found a fare sale between Washington DC and Argentina on Delta and nested it into a regular Northwest DTW-WAS 100$ flight. Result? Net savings of three hundred bucks. Typically, standard airlines wont search and book outside of their service, so their websites can’t do this.
If you’re really comfortable with the Expedia or Travelocity interface (I know, some of the airline websites are kind of lame), try using them to do your basic fare searching. If you find a standard ticket from point A to B on one airline, bite the bullet, go to that airline’s website and book the ticket there. It should save you a few bucks in the end.