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When booking plane tickets, I generally buy directly from the airline's website (as it is often the lowest or near-lowest price for the destinations I travel between). However, I know there are many other travel sites like Expedia, Travelocity, or Kayak.

When does it make sense to buy from one of those sites instead of direct, and what are the pros and cons of tickets purchased through them?

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5 Answers 5

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For domestic flights in the US, the cheapest price is almost always on the airline's website. Additionally, airlines sometimes include other benefits like additional frequent flyer miles, reduced baggage fees etc. for booking directly through their site.

Online travel agents such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz etc. can sometimes find flight combinations that you cannot book directly through a single airline. This can be useful when there is no single airline (or airline alliance) that serves your route. This is not common for domestic trips, but can happen sometimes for international flights between more minor destinations.

There is also the convenience of using a single site with all your information already stored instead of having to navigate a different a airline site every time you make a reservation. This can be especially useful for foreign airline websites which are sometimes more difficult to use and can be troublesome with foreign credit cards.

Finally, if you book through an online travel site, they become your "agent" and can take care of things such as cancellations, schedule changes etc. You might find it more convenient to speak to an English speaking customer service agent on a 1-800 number than calling a foreign airline which may not have a toll-free number or even a number at all in the USA.

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Although they accomplish the same purpose for the end user, travel websites have different 'structures'. Kayak and SkyScanner for instance are 'travel search engines' - they simply search multiple airline websites, hotel sites, other online travel agents etc and then present the results. You'll notice that once you click on a result, you will be redirected to another website to complete the booking.

Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity etc are all 'online travel agencies' - they function like real-world travel agencies in the sense that they file travel itineraries with airlines in the same way travel agent booking partners do. This means you can call / contact these sites for support, and often - depending on the airline - the only way to make changes is through the travel agent. On some international airlines, booking through an online travel agent means you won't be able to use web check-in facilities. etc.

The advantage of online travel agent sites is that they can negotiate cheaper fares with specific airlines directly - offers that you find elsewhere. This is particularly useful in certain verticals. For instance, STA Travel, an online/offline travel agent aimed at students - while fairly expensive for most other things - offers very discounted rates with select airlines; I've been able to get cheaper rates even when booking close to flight departure date. Similarly, many of the other bigger online travel agents also negotiate rates at times that can be better than what the airline's own website offers. Essentially, this is the problem search engines like Kayak are trying to solve by aggregating prices from different sources.

The catch is that because online travel agencies need to negotiate tie-ups with airlines, you may not find all existing flights on their site if they don't partner with that airline; this is especially true for international travel. Using a travel search engine thus usually gives a broader range of results, but keep in mind that many budget airlines often accept bookings exclusively through their own website and won't even show up on Kayak or Expedia. So it's always useful to search up a list of low-cost airlines operating in the region you're flying to and checking their websites individually.

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One caveat with comparison sites is that they often don't compare all airlines but they give the impression that they do. I can't speak for the sites you mention but it's certainly true for Webjet, the biggest such Australian site. –  hippietrail Jul 12 '11 at 7:27

Airlines do very often offer better prices to agents and this surely includes online agents.

Plus some agents will lower their profit margins and sell cheaper than the recommended price that the airline will use to sell direct. Internet-only agents have lower overheads than storefront agents so can potentially offer bigger discounts.

Some airlines may reserve some special offers to only sell directly but I can't confirm this either way.

But websites often have extra booking charges on top of the ticket price so it can go both ways!

Most websites I've used won't give the full price including fees and taxes until you go right through the booking process.

Most of the online agents I've used that compare prices of many airlines (caveat: I've only done this in Australia) do not in fact include all airlines. (I'm currently on a trip with Korean Air which was not listed at all on Australia's biggest comparison site, Webjet, and was several hundred dollars cheaper than anything they listed).

My advice if you really want to find the very best price is to try multiple comparison sites and multiple airline sites directly and go right through the booking process stopping before processing your credit card or as soon as the site informs you of the true full price.

Write down each of the best prices and then take these to any agents that offer to beat any price. (I saved almost $50 more off my Korean Air flight this way)

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Although I've noticed every time I have tried that with FlightCentre - 'lowest prices guaranteeed' over phone or email, they've told me either to use the deal I have or just suddenly stop replying to my email :) –  Mark Mayo Sep 8 '11 at 10:48
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In which country? I've only used them in Australia. And I've only ever tried the price beating thing in person. I would recommend try in person next time and ask to see the manager if they give you the run around. We can even ask each other on this site "Does Flight Centre honour their guarantee to beat any price?" With SE's Google effect they wouldn't like to break their rules publicly and have it so easy for people to know on the internet. But anyway they will only beat the price for the very same ticket, not another airline, date, etc. –  hippietrail Sep 9 '11 at 13:52
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In Europe, all online booking sites (airlines or travel agencies) are required by law to list all applicable fees before a reservation is made, so WYSIWYP. This change has been made in 2009, if memory serves. –  mindcorrosive Sep 14 '11 at 8:59

View from developer side

Many (even not all) air companies that are providing the ticket search on their sites are using one of the major reservation systems (Amadeus, for example). This is because it far too easy to make a deal between company and search system over than hundreds of websites providing searching feature (which they get from the reservation systems).

The difference arise then user wants to but a ticket. In this case search site are still using the RS-engine, while air-company site uses its own way to book tickets. In many cases there is no huge difference between prices - search systems add some commission for their places, and that’s all.

The main point is that search systems and air-companies has various places for each flight (say, 20 places for sale by the Amadeus, and 10 for sell from company site). And in this point you can't say for certain, are places available or not.

As for usual, travel sites and Amadeus gets a huge part of places, and there is more chances to buy ticket from them, but from local sites of air-companies you can get some of special prices. Also there is charter flights, which are hardly available on Amadeus, and they are available only for local air-companies sites.

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@Ankur Banerjee Thank you. –  VMAtm Jul 12 '11 at 17:42
    
That's interesting about the seat allotment that you mention. I know this is exactly the same with accommodation booking sites like hostelworld and hostelbookers. If one says a place has no beds left it may be only their allotment which is sold out and not the entire place. –  hippietrail Jul 13 '11 at 9:59

Big advantage of travel sites is that they can show you flights for all airlines, not just one airline.

Hipmunk has taken the only sensible approach to displaying flights ("only sensible" to my eye, anyway). It presents a day's flight schedule as a chart, sortable by price, duration, arrival time, departure time, and "agony".

Once I know which flight I want, I check prices and availability across the travel and airline websites. I don't recall that I've ever uncovered huge price differences but sometimes seats are available on one site and not another.

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I've said this elsewhere but since I feel most people are unaware of it I will say it here too: One caveat with comparison sites is that they often don't compare all airlines but they give the impression that they do. –  hippietrail Jul 13 '11 at 10:01
    
I have found big price differences this way in Australia. I thought I had done a good price comparison search, found a cheaper price on an airline's site, got that price beaten by an agent. The next day a friend searched a comparison site I'd never heard of and found it $200 cheaper. I spent the rest of the day looking for more comparison sites and found it a further $300 cheaper! –  hippietrail Jul 13 '11 at 10:03

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