Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.
Online travel agencies and third-party booking sites are everywhere. You probably recognize names like Expedia, Booking.com, Travelocity, Priceline, Hotels.com, Kayak and many more. Even Walmart has a booking site now for Walmart+ members.
Most of us have probably browsed these sites at some point and perhaps used one or two to book a trip.
Online travel agencies, or OTAs, certainly can help you sift through prices and itineraries across many airlines, hotel chains, rental properties and car companies. In theory, they keep you from having to visit a host of different websites before booking a trip.
They also provide the added benefit (in the eyes of some, at least) of populating all of your travel details in one place, from your flight to your hotel stay and car rental.
But these sites also have glaring drawbacks to consider. It can be more complicated (and sometimes more expensive) to change and cancel flights after booking with an OTA. And in some cases, hotel loyalty members are unable to earn points or enjoy elite status benefits.
Through the years, we’ve heard from plenty of TPG readers who have run into headaches trying to change, cancel or otherwise get assistance after booking through an OTA.
Here are some reasons that booking through one of these sites might not be right for you.
Cancellation and change fees can be more punitive than booking directly
Emerging from the depths of the pandemic, one of the more positive enduring changes for air travel was that the largest U.S. airlines generally kept change fees away — at least when it comes to their full-fare economy tickets (in other words, not basic economy).
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However, it’s possible to still run into fees when changing or canceling tickets booked through an OTA.
In some cases, airlines may penalize customers who book through a third-party site and want to make ticket changes. For example, American Airlines’ policy says: “An additional charge (per person) will be required for reservations made by travel agents or through another website that are changed by our Reservations, airport or Travel Center personnel.”
Generally, you can expect these sorts of extra charges to be passed on from the OTA to customers.
Some of these third-party booking sites also impose their own fees for certain ticket changes or cancellations.
If you’re flying with a budget airline or on a fare that does include airline-imposed fees for altering your itinerary, that could mean paying your booking site’s fee on top of whatever the airline charges.
For instance, Priceline says it may impose its own fees even if the airline doesn’t.
“If your flight’s fare rules allow a change, a per ticket exchange processing fee may apply,” the OTA’s website cautions.
Though some OTAs never impose additional service charges, why would you complicate things and add a middleman to the process if you don’t need to? Unless you find a fare you can’t book directly with an airline or hotel, there’s often little reason to use an OTA.
Getting a refund can be difficult
It can be challenging enough to get your hands on a refund for a canceled flight or hotel stay, even if you’re entitled to one.
Airlines doled out billions of dollars in refunds during the worst of the pandemic but have since tightened up some of the ultra-flexible policies they had at the height of COVID-19’s spread.
Even when you are owed a refund, though, requesting one from the airline isn’t always the easiest process … whether you choose to wait on hold with customer service by phone or send an email.
With an OTA, you’re often injecting a middleman into the discussion since your booking site may need to check with the airline to see if it can process a refund on your behalf.
And if the travel provider is less than eager to refund you, do you trust the OTA to go to bat for you like you would yourself?
When these travel disruptions occur, you can end up stuck in a lot of back and forth with the airline or travel provider and the OTA before receiving the money you deserve.
You may not earn points or elite credit
This one’s very simple: When you book hotels through OTAs, don’t expect to earn points or elite-qualifying credit for your bookings. Most major chains consider these third-party bookings to be “ineligible rates,” so you’re usually out of luck if you’re trying to earn points toward your next redemption.
Likewise, if you booked a hotel through an OTA, don’t expect to receive any of your elite benefits.
So, if you hold The Platinum Card® from American Express, your complimentary Hilton Honors Gold and Marriott Bonvoy Gold status is meaningless if you decide to book through an OTA. Say goodbye to your free breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi.
Related: Can you earn airline miles booking through OTAs?
Now, there are a couple of caveats here. You typically can earn airline miles and elite-qualifying credit even when booking through an OTA.
And, travelers nowhere near elite status with a major hotel loyalty program might not care about earning hotel points — especially since some OTAs now have their own loyalty programs. Most notably, there’s the new One Key program encompassing Expedia, Hotels.com and rental property site Vrbo.
That being said, you don’t have to be a road warrior to earn points; the right credit card strategy can take care of that.
You can’t count on prompt customer support
Reaching customer service when something goes wrong often isn’t easy when you book via an OTA.
Some sites have made it difficult to speak to a human unless you’re within a week of your scheduled trip.
And even if you do manage to get in touch with someone, finding an agent willing to work with your itinerary may be a challenge.
To reduce their costs as much as possible, OTAs have generally shied away from offering robust customer service.
Instead, you’ll often be asked to complete all of your changes and ask any questions online; you’ll only have the option to speak with a representative by phone when things go really wrong.
The deals aren’t always as good as they look
By now, you’re probably asking yourself why anyone would book through an OTA. It almost always comes down to the fact that it’s cheaper to book through an OTA than directly with the travel provider. But, I’d argue that it may not be as good of a deal as it appears.
As I mentioned, you won’t earn hotel points or receive elite benefits on OTA bookings.
If you have status that would otherwise give you free breakfast, parking, lounge access or late checkout, the value of these benefits can add up quickly. If you booked through an OTA, you’re not entitled to any of them.
Furthermore, most hotel chains have a best-rate guarantee. If you find a lower rate on an OTA, you can often try to first match the rate with the hotel chain.
If you’re successful, it’s the best of both worlds: You get your loyalty benefits and the lowest price.
Now, you might argue that this logic doesn’t apply to flights since you still earn miles when booking through an OTA, and airlines don’t generally price match.
Nonetheless, you should always factor in the possibility of needing to change your itinerary.
In that case, as mentioned, you may end up paying an additional service charge on top of whatever the airline charges you. Not to mention, you’ll spend a while navigating phone trees and waiting on hold.
So, even if it looks like a good deal on paper, be sure to factor in the additional costs — money and stress.
Good luck during blizzards and thunderstorms
What happens when your flight is significantly delayed or canceled, or you can’t make it to your hotel due to weather or other issues?
Typically, during major weather events, flights are governed by airline waivers, which make it easier for travelers to make penalty-free itinerary changes.
However, if you book through an OTA, you’ll likely still have to go through the process of calling that booking company’s customer service to make changes. Suffice it to say, getting through can be a challenge during a large snowstorm.
What’s more, OTAs will generally follow the airline waiver to the letter of the law, whereas an airline agent might be more flexible.
While airline customer service might find a way to get you on a flight a day early ahead of a blizzard without charging any cost difference, an OTA agent may not be able to offer you that same courtesy.
The same is true for hotels. I’ve needed to cancel hotels at the last minute when travel plans get derailed because of the weather. For the few times I’ve booked through an OTA, I’ve always been told that I need to follow the written cancellation policy of the OTA. But, when I booked directly, I almost never had an issue getting the cancellation fee waived.