Chances are, you’ve probably already heard of or even used an Online Travel Agency (OTA) before without even realizing it. Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz are all OTAs. Those are some of the big ones, but there are hundreds of smaller ones out there that all do the same thing.
In essence, they act as an automated travel agent. You do the work of searching for flights, hotels, car rentals, etc. via their platform (or via a search engine like Momondo) and if you book through them, their system will go and complete the reservation for you (usually after a small delay).
Seems kinda silly that they even exist if you’re still doing the work of searching for everything yourself, but in some cases, they can be cheaper than booking a flight from the airline itself so it’s useful to know your way around them.
This guide will tell you the top 5 things you need to know about online travel agencies and also answer all the questions and concerns that you may have about them so that you know how booking a ticket from an OTA differs from booking one from the airline directly.
1. Your ticket isn't confirmed instantly
When you buy a flight ticket from an OTA, you won’t get your confirmation email immediately like you would if you buy it from the airline directly.
This is because you aren’t buying a ticket that the OTA actually owns. They don’t get access to a reserved amount of tickets on every flight (some might, but most don’t) so they actually have to buy the ticket from the airline separately.
This means that the OTA’s system has to go and complete the reservation via the airline’s system which can take anywhere from a few minutes to up to 2 days, depending on the OTA.
Usually this isn’t much of an issue (assuming you’re not booking a same-day ticket) and you can rest peacefully knowing that the confirmation email will come eventually.
However, in some cases, you may get an email telling you that the ticket you purchased can no longer be sold at the price you bought it for and that you can either purchase it again at the new, higher price, or have your transaction cancelled and your money refunded. This happens more often when the price you were quoted was actually a mistake fare.
So if you book with an OTA, just make sure not to book anything else until you get your confirmation email.
Once you receive the airline confirmation number (also sometimes called a reference number, confirmation code, itinerary number, reservation code, or booking number) consisting of 5-6 characters (letters and/or numbers) which you can also cross-reference by using it to see your booking on the airline’s website, then you’re good to go!
If you still haven’t received the airline confirmation number after 48 hours, contact the OTA to see what the hold-up is.
2. Free 24-hour cancellation isn't guaranteed & cancellation fees are high
While airlines that operate flights beginning or ending in the US are bound by law to offer free cancellation (or holds*) within 24 hours of purchase for any ticket you buy through them at least 7 days before the departure date, OTAs are not.
Some of them will provide a similar policy in an effort to gain your business, but most of them make their sales final or charge high fees to change or cancel your ticket. Since you’re buying your ticket from the OTA and not the airline directly, there is no obligation for them to refund you your money within 24 hours.
To get your money back, you’d have to cancel your booking and this can some at a high cost. This is one of the ways that OTAs are able to offer lower prices than airlines. Airlines already charge high fees to change or cancel your booking, but OTAs tend to have higher ones.
So if you decide to book your ticket with an OTA, make sure you’re definitely going on the trip or else you risk losing money.
It’s also useful to check the OTA’s policies when it comes to changes, refunds, and other fees just so you know exactly what to expect.
*The law actually gives the airlines the option to offer a free hold instead of a cancellation so some airlines might choose to do this instead. The way it works is that if you select to hold the reservation, the booking is created, but you don’t pay for it. The airline then saves you a seat on the flight at the price they initially quoted you and if you let the 24 hours pass without paying for it, the reservation gets cancelled and your seat gets given up.
3. Their customer service can be lacklustre at times
When you book with an OTA, especially a smaller one, the customer service they offer might be questionable. Cutting corners on customer service is another one of the ways that they are able to offer lower prices than the airlines themselves. If they do have a call centre, it might be outsourced and understaffed which can lead to long hold times and miscommunications.
If your booking and flight go without a hitch, you probably won’t even have to worry about dealing with their customer service, but if there’s an issue with either for whatever reason, you probably won’t be able to resolve it with the airline on your own.
The airline might choose to tell you that you will have to figure it out with your OTA since they are the ones that actually made the booking with the airline which can lead to frustrations if their customer service isn’t up to par.
3b. But at other times, it can be a lifesaver
I know it sounds hard to believe after what I just said in #3, but hear me out.
Picture this scenario: You’re stranded at the airport in Beijing at 3am because there’s an issue with your Air China flight. The airline’s customer service office doesn’t open until 6am and the ticketing agent on the phone who can barely speak English, if at all, is stuck working a graveyard shift and really doesn’t care about your predicament.
Would you rather deal with this situation on your own or have someone else experienced in these situations do it?
Personally, I would welcome the added support because it sounds like it would be a nightmare to deal with it on my own.
So while some OTAs might not have the best customer service, examples like the one I just gave show that there are times when you’d be thankful that you booked your ticket via an OTA because you’d have that extra avenue of support which you can call on to help solve issues like these.
4. Checked luggage and other fees might be more expensive
More and more airlines these days have started to charge for checked luggage, choosing your seat, and even carry-on luggage, and booking your ticket with an OTA doesn’t mean you get to escape those fees.
In reality, there’s a good chance that you will actually be paying more for them than you would if you book your ticket from the airline directly. When an OTA offers a lower price for the same flight, this could be one of the ways they make up the difference.
So the best thing to do when you find a lower price with an OTA and you know you’re going to be traveling with extra luggage or that you want to select your seat is to check what the total price of the booking would be if you booked it directly from the airline. Compare that to what the OTA offers after all those extra fees and you may find that you wouldn’t be saving much more if you go with the OTA.
5. Their online reviews should be taken with a grain of salt
If you don’t recognize the OTA that you find the lowest price for and you choose to do a Google search for reviews from other people that bought tickets from them, you may be surprised at the state of some of them. However, you have to take them with a grain of salt.
If you look at the reviews, some of them are upset with how the flight itself was handled which is actually a complaint that should be directed to the airline, not the OTA. Others are from customers that don’t understand how OTAs work and assume they can get whatever they want like free changes or cancellations and become upset when the OTA doesn’t give it to them.
Read the reviews carefully before judging the OTA and if you notice reviews that have legitimate complaints, then perhaps that OTA is not the best choice. At the end of the day, it’s your judgement call to make.
And don’t forget to think about airlines and the reviews that they get. A lot of airlines already get the same bad reviews so there really isn’t much of a difference when you look at the big picture. Not to mention that people in general like to complain about things more than they like to praise them so you’re more likely to see bad reviews than good ones anyways.
So should you book with an OTA?
That’s your decision to make. The OTAs that you will find on Momondo are reputable so you don’t need to worry about being scammed and as long as you are vigilant and aware of all the differences that come with purchasing a flight from an OTA, then you won’t run into any of the issues that other people write about in their bad reviews.
Make sure to read the policies for the OTA that you buy your ticket from and to double check that there aren’t any extra fees or that the price is in a different currency or something and you should have no problems using them to buy flight tickets. And if you’d still prefer to play it safe, the safest thing you can do is to buy your ticket from the airline itself.
I personally don’t have an opinion one way or the other. My priority is getting the cheapest price so wherever I find it, whether it’s from the airline or from an OTA, I go with that. If the price is the same, I usually just go with the airline because it keeps things simple.
And that's it!
Let me know if this guide helped clear things up for you and if you have any other questions or experiences with OTAs to share, feel free to post them in the comments below!
And if you’d like to learn about the only major airline that will never be found on Momondo or any OTA, check out my Guide to Southwest Airlines. If you plan to travel within the USA, you definitely need to know about them.