31

I take quite a lot of flights for both business and pleasure, and although I typically book my business flights through a (corporate-mandated) travel agent, I always book my personal flights directly with the airline (I should add that I am fussy, and I normally fly only with full-service airlines; no budget ones for me).

From time to time, I read that booking flights through a travel agent, either online or physical, can lead to cheaper prices. At least for simple trips (one airline, maybe a simple return), I have a hard time believing this to be the case; the airline has most direct control over their tickets, travel agents add a layer of extra indirection that has to be paid for, etc.

So am I losing anything by not booking with a travel agent? Am I really likely to get better prices?

Edit: I should be clearer - let me restrict the scenario by imagining that I already know what I want - e.g. to get from LHR to ORD on date X/Y/Z, with no stops, ideally on American Airlines. Can a travel agent still offer me something in that scenario?

  • 2
    One thing to note is that some things may actually be lost by booking through an agent, particularly if they book you at a group rate. Group rates often do not allow you to pick your seat, earn miles, or check-in online in advance. Last year, I traveled as part of a group that the leader of the group booked via an agent and all of the above happened. Since we were not able to choose seats, we got whatever was leftover, which meant I was stuck in a middle seat for nearly 22 hours one way and earned no miles for flying halfway around the world and back. – reirab Sep 12 '14 at 19:04
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    Booking online via the airlines' websites definitely took more time researching the options when I took a similar trip this year, but it was a much more pleasant journey as a result (and I did get my miles.) – reirab Sep 12 '14 at 19:07
16

In the UK, one major thing you lose by not using a travel agent is ATOL protection. This may not be relevant if you're not booking hotels though the agent (did you recieve an ATOL certificate?). But if you do and the airline goes bust while you're away ATOL will:

...make sure you can finish your trip and return home. If your holiday is booked but you have not yet left, you will usually receive a refund.

Source

Booking directly, you may lose all your money or have difficulty returning home. I'm not sure if similar schemes run in other countries.


The main advantage of ATOL protection over travel insurance:

  • ATOL protection will cover you if your provider goes bust; many travel insurance policies don't include this.
  • if you book with an ATOL accredited agent, ATOL will have completed due diligence against that agent - the idea being that it isn't about to fail imminently.
  • If you book a holiday and the airline fails before you travel the ATOL-protected tour operator must make alternative flight arrangements for you. Often Travel Insurance will refund you the money but it will be down to you to book any alternatives, etc.

All ATOL Accredited agent must provide the above. There is a small additional cost that the agent must pay to ATOL (I think it's about 80p); this may or may not be passed on to the customer.

  • 6
    But the ATOL "insurance" is funded by the travel industry, which means it is paid by the travellers themselves... Like any insurance plan... – DJohnM Sep 11 '14 at 17:43
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    @User58220 and that's a pretty good thing. – o0'. Sep 12 '14 at 8:03
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    @User58220 Working for a travel agent I can tell you that ATOL protection add's roughly 80p to your booking... – Liam Sep 12 '14 at 8:12
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    Personally, I'd consider the chance of Delta or Southwest, not only going bankrupt, but ceasing operations and liquidating before my date of travel to be sufficiently small to not be worth paying any extra cost to protect against. If you're flying with some small, no-name carrier, then this might be a real concern worthy of insuring against (especially if the ticket is expensive, such as if you booked flight on, say Virgin Galatic.) – reirab Sep 12 '14 at 18:52
  • 1
    ... and there is a very impressive list of defunct airlines of Europe and United Kingdom for those on that side of the pond. – user13097 Sep 12 '14 at 23:34
15

I can't list all possible things you might lose by not booking through travel agents, but I know one or two for sure, in regards to cheaper prices.

Airlines do sell seats in bulks, same as in manufacturers sell goods in bulk, these bulk seats will be cheaper and customers to these bulk seats are travel agents. This type of seats are called consolidated tickets. These seats are a win-win situation for both airlines and travel agents. For the airlines, these seats are sold and got paid for, whether the seats are resold by the travel agents or not, and for the travel agents, these seats are cheaper which will help them to attract more buyers, that's why you see some agents show prices cheaper than what is shown in the operators website or in another agent's pricelist. So even if you are sure you want to go using a specific airline, you might get a better price from a travel agent than what you might get from the operator itself.

Other possible thing you might lose is the "more options", and I am not talking about prices here. When you book through a travel agent, you will have more options from different airlines and you got to choose, some of these options might have nice transit cities in the middle, which might give you the chance to see other cities in the way to your destination, or possible other packaged deals which comes with a cheap tour offer or a cheap accommodation. These options are not available when you book directly from the airline's website, they will only show their own flights.

  • OK - I should have been clearer and pointed out that in most cases I'm pretty confident that I already know what I want - I've looked for it on matrix.itasoftware.com or similar. Will the travel agent get me a better price in many cases, or any other non-obvious benefits? – Andrew Ferrier Sep 11 '14 at 15:22
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    If you fly often in the same route and/or you are strict about the date, airline, ticket class (even economy has multiple fare classes - some give you 50% of miles, etc), I think the better way would be to use the Airline web site. Those bulk tickets agents sell usually comes with some restrictions. I used a few airlines in the past, but I had hard time claiming miles for those flights. For flights with stopovers, etc, agents can be handy. – Ayesh K Sep 11 '14 at 16:23
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    @MeNoTalk: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_sense . There you go, if you buy something and can't sell it you have to pay for it yourself. If your job is to be an agent your money comes from your customers. If your customers buy things from you you thus have to charge a surcharge to pay for the seats he wasn't able to sell. – David Mulder Sep 12 '14 at 9:51
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    If the [number of empty seats times their price] over [the profit per seat times the total number of seats sold] is less than the margin by which seats are cheaper when bought in bulk then indeed the price can be better (not including the sallary of the agent and profits the agents has to make), if not it has to be more expensive. That's no assumption, that's just plain simple logic. – David Mulder Sep 12 '14 at 10:02
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    I didn't really know. I use one UK online agent and a traditional one here in my city. Only the traditional one gave me cheaper ones while the online one gave almost similar prices. Thanks for the link @MeNoTalk – Ayesh K Sep 13 '14 at 10:58
7

The biggest difference between doing it yourself on an airline's website and going through through a travel agent is less flexibility. The travel agent's reservation system shows them how many seats in each fare class, allowing them to build your booking flight by flight. The airline system uses algorithms that cover many possibilities, but not all.

So an experienced agent can perhaps build you an itinerary from A to B, that the airline algorithm isn't programmed for. But likely not at a better fare.

Consolidator fares and bulk fares are slowly becoming a thing of the past except for tour companies that package air & land. Most of these fares are no better than the best airfare that the airline offers to the public, but perhaps have more seats available per day.

  • 1
    I was going to make the comment about cons fares disappearing below but you beat me to it. Most airlines are actively trying to cut travel agents out of the loop these days (as Low cost carriers did) to reduce their gross prices to the customer. – Liam Sep 11 '14 at 15:45
  • The experience is also a good point, someone who can natively use Galileo gets much more control, etc. than any automated system can. – Liam Sep 11 '14 at 15:46
4

Booking with a single airline puts the onus on them if a leg is delayed so long that you miss a connection.

If you book a journey on multiple airlines (eg to China and then within China can easily make a change of carriers a good choice) then if you make the bookings yourself separately you may not be covered for a missed leg in the case of a delay. Subject to certain limitations a travel agent is able to offer protection against such events. This may require that the airlines involved are involved in the same 'conference' such as eg Star alliance, but may not, and agents will usually (but not always) offer journeys where this protection does apply.

I once was almost a day late for an internal Australian QANTAS flight due to a China-Australia non-QANTAS delay. I had booked the last leg myself independently from the main journey and notionally lost the right to a new flight within Australia. On that occasion QANTAS kindly provided a 'free' replacement flight, but were not obliged to do so.

  • 6
    Something to take into account but note that “different airlines” is not the same as “booked separately”. It's possible to book flights on different airlines as one ticket and it's also possible to independently book two tickets on the same airline and be stuck for this reason. – Relaxed Sep 12 '14 at 1:42
  • Fancy that - a downvoter. +4 -1. Who can fathom the minds thereof? – Russell McMahon Sep 13 '14 at 12:50
  • @RussellMcMahon fancy that, a complaint about downvotes. +5 -2. – LessPop_MoreFizz Sep 14 '14 at 15:35
2

A few years ago (online) travel agents would pretty much always offer lower price than the airline on its website (e.g. British Airways). At some point it seemed to change though, and now many airlines (including BA), but by no chance all, make sure that their online prices are not worse than the agents. I am not sure what is American Airline's approach. Websites like Kayak allow you to compare prices in one place, because they index both main online agents as well as the airline's themselves.

Given that the price is the same, I don't think you loose anything by booking with the airline. A thing you definitely gain, is the lack of agent's fees when you want to change your booking. A few years ago I had a ticket booked with one of the online ones and I had to cancel it. The agent called the airline on my behalf and then charged me £25 per person fees on top of the fees of the airline. To make things more annoying, these fees are usually not covered by your travel insurance.

2

One thing that I get from a travel agent that I have yet to find from an airline website is ticket reservation without paying for it.

In other words, I want to hold a seat for me now, because I might be traveling on future date X; lets say its four days from now.

If tomorrow I decide to cancel my trip, I can cancel and then do the refund process through the airline's website - which then has to talk to my bank and there may be charges etc. etc.

However, with an agent - I just call him up and say "I changed my mind" and the will just cancel the booking, that's it - I don't lose anything because I haven't yet paid for the reservation.

I also cannot manage to book an "open ended" ticket through the airlines I fly (usually, Emirates) from their website. An open ended ticket is a two-way ticket with an open return date.

If you have a good relationship with an agent (you use the same one consistently), they can save you a lot of hassle and time when you need something urgent.

I once had to travel the same day (it was an emergency). I rushed the airport and stood in line at the check-in counter, and called my travel agent. By the time it was my turn at the queue, my ticket was waiting for me with the agent. He had also managed to secure me a hotel at my destination.

I always remind myself to throw some business to my travel agent, he isn't always the cheapest compared to booking direct with the airlines, but more than makes up for it in terms of service.

  • Most US airlines will allow you to hold the ticket for 24 hours before paying when booking through their website. I know, for example, that American Airlines does this. – Andrew Ferrier Sep 13 '14 at 9:34
  • Also, how long does the agent give you the hold for? – Andrew Ferrier Sep 13 '14 at 9:35
  • I once did a hold for two weeks - ie, I told him today to book me a flight two weeks for now; then decided not to travel. – Burhan Khalid Sep 13 '14 at 9:36
  • Burhan, I assume he must be buying consolidated seats as discussed in some of the answers above, and therefore have already paid for them himself. I very much doubt any airline would allow him to hold a seat for two weeks on their inventory. – Andrew Ferrier Sep 13 '14 at 9:37
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    Yes I believe so; but this was not during a busy travel season (like summer holidays or winter/christmas) when to my knowledge these seats are typically bulk reserved. I just called him to ask - he told me that he actually reserved an open ticket (held it) - that way he can change the dates around; and then at the time of booking he can switch the ticket type. He also mentioned that this doesn't always work because sometimes the ticket type is not available on a segment. Anyway, good to have a travel agent on your speed dial. – Burhan Khalid Sep 13 '14 at 9:39
1

My answer is short and simple: when I tried to buy a ticket for my forthcoming flight on date X/Y/Z (other dates was less convenient) there was already no tickets by airline. However one of travel agents have one remaining ticket (with almost the same price). So sometimes travel agents can give you more possibilities.

1

Flight booking websites tend to push connecting flights via hub, even if there are also multiple direct flights between your airports.

For instance, check your favorite website trying to book a return flight between Zurich and Frankfurt. At least five direct flights daily are offered by Lufthansa alone, in both directions. However many booking sites will suggest connecting flights with long layovers instead. These may be cheaper than direct flight, but not very significantly, much less than the difference between Business and Economy classes, for instance.

As a result, if I know it should be a direct connection, I usually buy the exactly needed ticket from the airline directly.

0

I always book using online travel sites and on many occasions found them to be cheaper than booking directly on the airline website. On the downside, not all travel sites allow you to enter a FF number to claim miles. Also, some airline websites allow you to choose a seat right after booking.

  • 3
    A travel agent is not really a travel website. – Michael Hampton Sep 11 '14 at 21:49
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    Also, you can (always?) claim miles by providing the Frequent Flyer Number on Checkin. – DCTLib Sep 12 '14 at 8:13

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