What are online travel agencies and is it safe to book through them?

Popular search engines like Skyscanner.com and Momondo.com in their search results along with airlines usually return online travel agencies such as: Gotogate, Expedia, Bravofly and many others.

It is important to know that search engines are not the actual flight sellers. They only find and compare flight prices from airlines and online travel agencies, providing the best possible itineraries and rates.

After you click on your preferred flight deal search engines redirect you to an airline’s or a travel agency’s website where you can book your flight. In the process of booking some extra charges (baggage, insurance, flight booking administration fee, etc.) may be added to the flight price which was initially displayed by the flight search engine.


What are online travel agencies (OTAs)?

Online travel agencies (also refereed to as OTAs) are companies which sell travel products (flights, hotels, etc.) online.

Usually online travel agencies have an agreement with suppliers (airlines, hotels, etc.) to resell their products at net prices. OTAs earn a small commission from suppliers for the products they manage to resell.

After the booking is complete the client receives an electronic voucher which he needs to present to the supplier or can use in case he needs to contact the travel agent.


How online travel agencies can offer lower prices than airlines?

Online travel agencies often offer lower prices when booking though them instead of booking directly with the airlines.

Below is an example from Skyscanner search results when looking for the cheapest flight from Paris to Singapore. In this example even nine OTAs offer better prices than the airline for the same route.

online travel agencies

Online travel agencies can offer lower prices than airlines due to several possible reasons:

  • They can share a part of the commission they receive from the airlines with the client in order to offer a better price. This way OTAs are trying to make more sales and to attract loyal clients for the future.
  • Larger online travel agencies which sell many flights may receive discounts from the airlines. In this case they add a mark-up fee to the discounted flight price to cover their own costs. The lower mark-up fee they add the lower flight price they can offer.
  • Online travel agencies often buy flights at the lowest possible rates. Such flights are usually non-refundable and can only be changed or cancelled paying high change or cancellation fees.


Is it safe to book flights through online travel agencies?

It is safe to book flights through online travel agencies which have many reviews on popular search engines like Skyscanner.com, Momondo.com or Kayak.co.uk.

When buying a product from an online travel agency a buyer receives an electronic voucher (usually by email) which needs to be presented to the supplier.

Below is an example of the electronic voucher we received from Bravofly online travel agency when booking our return flights from Kiev to Sri Lanka.

Online travel agencies

This flights were operated by Air Arabia airlines and to double check the status of our booking we entered our personal details on Air Arabia web site. Everything was fine!

However, before making a booking with an OTA it is worth to be aware of some advantages as well as some disadvantages of not booking flights directly with the airlines.


Advantages of buying flights through online travel agencies

There are two obvious advantages of buying flights with online travel agencies:

  • They can often offer lower prices than airlines due to discounts and commission they receive from the airlines.
  • They can combine several airlines in one booking while airlines sell only their own flights.


Disadvantages of buying flights through online travel agencies

However, there may be some drawbacks to using OTAs. The main ones include:

  • Small OTAs do not offer good customer support in case flight changes or cancellation need to be made after the tickets are issued.
  • It takes longer to receive tickets when booking with an OTA than when booking directly with an airline. Online travel agencies don’t have tickets they sell and only purchase them after a payment is received from the client. This delay may result in a flight price change. In this case the client will be given the option to either buy a ticket at a higher price or have a full money refund.
  • Online travel agencies often tell their clients that all flights are non-refundable, even if they are refundable according to the airline’s policy. Some OTAs do this in order to keep the airline’s refund to themselves in case the client decides to cancel the flight. Therefore, before making a cancellation it is always advisable to check with the airline whether you are holding refundable tickets or not.


Is it better to book directly with an airline or through an OTA?

We recommend booking flights directly with an airline unless the savings are significant.

If the savings are worth it before booking through an OTA make sure you are not going to change or cancel your flight. OTAs usually offer non-refundable flights or apply high flight change or cancellation fees.

When booking error fare flights we again recommend booking directly with an airline. OTAs don’t have the tickets they offer and only buy them after they receive a payment from the client. Error fares may disappear any second and this delay may result in a flight price change.


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