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Know When It Makes Sense to Book Flights & Hotel Stays Through an Online Travel Agency

[Million Mile Secrets] Know When It Makes Sense to Book Flights & Hotel Stays Through an Online Travel Agency: There are advantages and disadvantages to booking travel with an online travel agency (OTA), like OrbitzExpedia, or Priceline.
Million Mile Secrets reader, Faisal, commented:

I would like to know if you had an experience with 3rd-party booking websites like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity?  What are the pros and cons of using them compared to booking directly through hotel and airline websites?

Online travel agencies offer a convenient way to search multiple airlines and hotels at once.  But making travel reservations through 3rd-party booking sites do NOT always come with the same perks you get when booking directly.
I’ll explain the pros and cons of using an online travel agency.
Advantages of Booking Travel Through an Online Travel Agency
1.   Convenience
Many folks like to book hotels and flights through Orbitz or Priceline because these sites offer a simple way to search multiple airlines and hotel chains at once.  And if you don’t have loyalty to a certain airline or hotel, online travel agencies can help you find the cheapest travel prices.
Plus, you’ll get an organized travel itinerary when you book through an online travel agency.  And you can view and manage all aspects of a trip in one place, including airfare, hotel stays, and rental cars.  This is ideal for families or groups traveling together.
Some travelers would rather book this way than having separate reservations for each part of their trip.
2.   Airfare Cancellation Policy
When you book airfare through an online travel agency, you’ll typically have 24 hours or until midnight of the following day to cancel your flight.  You can read my post with the cancellation policies for online travel agencies.
Many airlines also have a similar policy when booking directly, but some don’t offer a refund if you cancel a last-minute booking.  For example, with United Airlines you can only get a refund within 24 hours if you made your purchase 1 week or more prior to the original scheduled departure flight.
3.   Hotel Price Guarantee
Some online travel agencies offer a price guarantee, which makes it possible to get a refund should you find a price drop after booking a hotel reservation.
For example, with Expedia?s Extended Hotel Price Guarantee, you can get a $50 travel coupon and a refund of the price difference if you find a lower price online (with conditions) within 24 hours of booking.
4.   Double Dip on Rewards Earning
You can earn additional rewards or cash back when booking through an online travel agency by first going through a shopping portal like Ebates or TopCashBack.  I recommend checking Evreward or Cashback Monitor to see which portals are offering the best deals when you’re booking.
Many online travel agencies also have their own loyalty programs, which allow you to earn points for each dollar spent on their website.  These rewards can be used for future travel booked on their websites.  This is a nice way to earn points on stays at independent or boutique hotel stays where you usually don’t earn any points.
But Consider These Drawbacks!
1.   You’ll Miss out on Elite Status Perks
When you book hotel stays through an online travel agency, you typically will NOT get elite status perks.  This means no room upgrades, late check-out, or bonus points for your stay.
And some chains (like Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood) require you book with them directly to get free Wi-Fi.  So even if an online travel agency has a cheaper price, consider if you’ll end up paying more during your stay to get internet access.
Also, keep in mind, if you’re participating in a hotel promotion, like IHG Accelerate, you’ll have to book directly to get credit.
You should enjoy frequent flyer benefits and earn miles if you book flights through an online travel agency.  Just be sure that you’re NOT booking a Basic Economy ticket.  Because these restrictive tickets don’t include seat assignments.  And you’ll pay more to stow a carry-on in the overhead bin.
2.   Earn Fewer or No Frequent Flyer Miles or Hotel Points
You typically do NOT earn any points when booking hotel stays through an online travel agency.  Even if you’re just a casual traveler, the points you earn from booking directly can add up.  These points can save you money on future travel with free or discounted hotel stays.
And when you book airfare through an online travel agency, you might earn fewer miles than you would if you purchased airfare directly with the airline.
For example, JetBlue offers at least 6 points per $1 spent when you book at JetBlue.com.  But you?ll earn 50% less, or 3 points per $1, if you book through an online travel agency.
3.   Fees and Higher Prices
Before booking travel through an online travel agency, I recommend comparing prices to what’s available directly with the airline or hotel.  Because it’s never fun to overpay!
For example, certain airlines add fees to airfare bought through online travel agencies to encourage folks to book directly instead.  You?ll pay an extra ~$18 fee when you book flights through sites like Orbitz or Expedia on these airlines:

Austrian Airlines
Brussels Airlines

And if you have to make changes to your itinerary, you could end up paying fees to the airline AND the online travel agency.
With hotels, I’ve found that many chains offer discounted rates to loyalty program members, so it?s almost always a better deal to book directly, instead of through an online travel agency.
Bottom Line
Using online travel agencies like OrbitzExpedia, or Priceline can add convenience when booking travel.  It’s simple to search multiple airlines and hotels to compare prices.  And they make it easy to view and manage your travel itinerary for all travelers.
But there are drawbacks to consider, including:

Not usually getting elite status perks when you book hotel stays through an online travel agency
Earning fewer or no frequent flyer miles or hotel points

Paying higher prices or extra fees if you have to change or cancel your trip

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