In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, travelers have vented their frustrations in countless pages of negative reviews. Many missed out on their vacations and lost money as well. As people start traveling again, should they use third-party travel sites to book flights, hotels, and other accommodations? Is it better to book directly with the airline or hotel? Travel experts weigh in on the pros and cons of online travel agencies.
What are third-party travel sites or online travel agencies?
Travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity are online travel agencies that give discount prices on airfare, hotels, and other amenities. Some sites specialize in airfare, like CheapOair, some in hotels like Booking.com, and others offer packages with many different accommodations.
Many travelers each year find cheap flight, hotel booking, and car rental deals on these sites, but how are the prices so low? Sometimes you may notice ads on the site that drive revenue, but most of the time these online travel agencies make money by helping you save money.
How do travel sites make money?
Names of prominent travel sites, like Expedia, hold a lot of weight in the travel industry. Many hotels and travel accommodation companies want to be associated with these brands because they know a lot of people search for travel on these sites. Small hotel chains and boutique hotels need the extra online traffic to get more bookings. It also helps that many people trust the travel sites they know and are willing to book with hotels they haven’t heard of.
When travelers book a hotel room, they pay a standard rate based on the hotel’s prices. Travel sites, on the other hand, book a group of rooms, flights, or tours at a time and get a discounted rate. These sites then turn around and sell the travel accommodations at a discounted rate to the normal price, but above the discounted rate they bought it at. In this way, consumers save some money and the travel site makes money as well.
What are the difficulties of travel sites?
Many travel sites became extremely popular in recent years for their great deals, but the disruption of the pandemic showed just how difficult to work with these sites can be. With future travel uncertain, Travel Expert Kendra Thornton shared some cautions to travelers looking at deals on travel sites.
Highlight: Some travel sites may be hard to work with.
“I think these sites can sometimes offer compelling deals that are attractive to travelers, especially those on limited budgets. However, like everything — the better the price, the more restrictions they are that can make refunds, cancellations, or changes nearly impossible for travelers. Travelers need to weigh price versus flexibility when they book with these types of sites.”
— Kendra Thornton
Another disadvantage of travel sites is how difficult it is to cancel. High call volume and inflexible policies are what many people experienced after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Kendra Thornton also said, “If the traveler isn’t having luck getting through to the customer service agent at the travel site, then they could try going directly to the hotel reservations for assistance. If they booked airfare with the third-party site, then they would have to handle any changes directly with the source that first booked the ticket — going directly to the airline would not help per airline rules.”
Travelers should also be aware that some travel sites are owned by the same parent company, like how Expedia owns Travelocity and Booking.com, among others. Searching on those sites could yield different results, but it’s also possible that the deals will be the same.
Using a third-party site can also leave a larger margin of error in your vacation. Many travel sites seem to have a lack of transparency regarding where a traveler’s money goes and when a hotel or flight is actually booked. Using that third-party method can put a traveler at more risk of arriving without confirmed bookings.
What are the benefits of travel sites?
Like mentioned above, travel sites book rooms and other accommodations in bulk, so their prices are often lower than booking directly with the travel company. This comes with whatever restrictions the site puts in place, but travelers will often pay less. Most sites have some sort of cancellation policy — it just might not be the most flexible. Some sites will allow free cancellation for 24 hours and others up until a few days before departure. This does allow for some wiggle room when finding the best vacation deals.
Another benefit of online travel agencies comes with vacation packages. Laura Mandala, CEO of Mandala Research, points out that a travel site might find a flight pattern that you may not have found yourself. Package deals with a hotel, flight, and rental car all included might also be much more expensive if you booked everything separately rather than in a vacation package. In this way a travel site deal might be worth it, but it depends on the traveler’s needs.
Travel sites also get their fame from easy use. Rather than searching every airline and hotel for prices, picking dates will show options from all those sites at once. Travel sites can be a great place to start looking at travel opportunities because of this search capacity.
Is it safe to use travel sites?
If you do find a great deal on an online travel agency, how can you determine if it’s worth it? Utilizing reviews can make you aware of what travel sites might need more looking into. Things like cancellation policies, customer service, and value for your money are all great things to look up reviews about. Even though every customer’s trip and experience is unique, reviews can still be a good indicator of which companies are easy to work with and which are not.
Re:spondelligent has analyzed recent reviews of hotels, restaurants, and campgrounds and found that around 10 percent contain Coronavirus-related feedback. In many reviews, it seems like travelers want to share their experiences to help future travelers choose their vacation accommodations wisely. While you may have to filter through many critical reviews to find the ones with good advice, it might be worth taking note if a site has lots of unhappy customers writing about negative experiences. To find reliable reviews, look to unbiased, third-party review sites.