Some of the links contained in this post are affiliate links, meaning that at no cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Pinterest graphic titled 'Booking Flights Direct vs. OTAs' highlighting the comparison on what's best for your next trip with images of airline tickets on a keyboard backdrop

Planning a trip can be both exciting and also pretty stressful. There are already many options available, but determining whether to book directly with airlines or use online travel agencies (OTAs) can make the decision even more overwhelming.

I have been on countless flights, visiting over 30 states and hundreds of cities in the United States and abroad. That means I’ve done my fair share of searching for flights. So I know a thing or two when it comes to booking flights and how to decide between booking direct or through an OTA.

Each approach has its advantages and finding the right one can greatly impact your overall travel experience. So let’s take a look at the various factors that should influence this decision, so you’ll feel empowered to choose the approach that aligns best with your individual travel style and budget.

Close-up of a departure information board displaying flight times and statuses at an airport.

What are OTAs?

Online travel agencies (OTAs) are platforms that serve as the middleman between consumers (you) and various service providers, such as airlines, hotels, car rental companies, and tour operators. There are probably thousands of online travel agencies that exist, big or small.

Examples of big OTAs:

Examples of smaller OTAs:

People like to use OTAs because they can consolidate a lot of info in one place, making it easier to compare options, find deals, and complete their bookings conveniently online.

OTAs generally have user-friendly websites and mobile apps, allowing you to search for flights, hotels, and other travel-related services based on your preferences.

How do OTAs make money?

There are several ways that OTAs can make money, but probably the primary source is through commission from the airline or service provider.

When you book flights, hotels, or any service through their platform the OTA receives a commission from the service provider. This commission is typically a percentage of the total booking value.

This works for OTAs because they usually facilitate a high volume of bookings because people perceive them as more convenient and “cheaper” than booking direct.

What a lot of people like about OTAs are the opportunities for additional services and add-ons like seat upgrades, travel insurance, airport transfers, or activities and tours. This generates additional revenue for them.

Are OTAs always cheaper?

Not really.

Contrary to popular belief, OTAs don’t always guarantee lower prices compared to booking directly with the airline. They can often offer competitive rates, but in some cases, the prices are exactly the same or may actually be slightly higher.

However, despite the slightly higher prices, a lot of people are willing to pay for the convenience and additional services provided by the OTA, such as comparison tools, user reviews, and package bookings.

But nowadays, airlines are increasingly incentivizing consumers to book directly with them. They offer exclusive discounts, loyalty program benefits, and other perks to bypass OTAs and establish a direct relationship with customers.

What is the 24 hour rule?

The 24-hour rule is a Department of Transportation federal rule that allows travelers to cancel or change their flight bookings within 24 hours of making the reservation without any fees or penalties.

This means that even if you book a non-refundable or fully restricted fare you can cancel or make changes at no penalty, but only if it’s within 24 hours of making the booking.

This regulation applies to flights originating or departing from the United States. But this rule technically only applies to airlines and not necessarily to flights booked with an OTA.

You should always check the specific terms and conditions of your booking and consult with the airline or OTA for compliance with the 24-hour rule.

A busy airport scene with passengers, ground crew, and an aircraft at the gate during a vibrant sunset

The Convenience Factor

When it comes to booking travel, there are two factors that hold high value for me: comfort and convenience. I will not just always choose the cheapest option because for me that’s not always the best option.

Personally, I’m willing to pay a bit more for a direct flight rather than saving a few bucks and risking potential delays or lost luggage with a connecting flight. Even if the savings are significant, say $100 or $200, I’d probably still opt for the more convenient choice to avoid unnecessary stress.

If this is you too, check out my post about the big mistakes to avoid when booking flights. I also avoid checking a bag for this reason so I have another post about how to pack a carry-on.

If you’ve never run into a situation where you miss a connecting flight or lose your luggage consider yourself lucky. It can ruin a day or even an entire trip.

So when it comes to deciding whether to book your flights through an OTA or direct with the airline, convenience should play a significant role in the process.

Booking Direct

Booking directly with the airline allows you to have complete control over your booking. Most major airlines (and even small ones) don’t even charge you additional change fees.

Another convenience of booking directly is the ability to communicate directly with the airline. When you book through an OTA everything has to go through them which in some cases can be a hassle.

Flexibility is huge with airlines these days since the pandemic. More and more airlines are offering no additional change fees and more flexible fares to give consumers more options when booking flights.

Booking with OTAs

On the other hand, using OTAs offers convenience, but their change policies may be subject to additional fees and coordination between the OTA and the airline. This can be a pretty unpleasant experience.

However, OTAs are a one-stop shop offering packages that include flights, accommodations, and other services. This can be convenient and save you from hopping between multiple websites.

But although the OTAs do offer package deals that can sometimes be cheaper, you should not assume that this is always the case. Nowadays, major airlines also offer vacation packages of their own. Allowing you to book flights, hotels, and other services for one price.

Promotional graphic from JetBlue offering up to $600 off vacation packages, featuring two people relaxing on beach chairs by the ocean.
Airlines offer vacation packages too

Note: Always pay attention to the change and cancellation policies, potential fees, and any restrictions that may apply to your specific flight booking.

What about loyalty programs?

If maximizing loyalty programs is important to you then booking directly with airlines will give you the best access to their loyalty programs. You’ll typically be able to earn miles and elite status which comes with added benefits and possible award redemptions for free or almost free flights.

OTAs may have their own loyalty programs, but they may not always give you the opportunity to earn miles or status with the airline when you book with them.

If you fly with a few specific airlines regularly it’s usually much better to always book directly with the airline as you’ll receive more rewards and benefits.

The Cost Comparison

Of course, when planning a trip, one of the key factors is going to be cost. OTAs may give off the impression that if you book with them you’re always getting the best deal, but as mentioned previously that may not be the case.

When you’re searching for flights you may notice that OTAs don’t always offer the cheapest fare and sometimes the fares are exactly the same as if you booked directly or in some cases a little more expensive.

Some OTAs will offer the service of refunding you if the price of your flight goes down, but this is not a free service. They charge for this service and if the price does not go down you don’t get your money back.

If you book with the airline directly and the price goes down, you will most likely be able to go online and easily update your reservation for a travel credit and in some cases get a refund.

A solo traveler walking with a suitcase outside an airport terminal, signifying the start of a journey.

Booking Direct

When booking direct with the airline you may have access to exclusive deals and promotions that are only available for customers who have booked direct.

You may find that when you go to check in for your flight that an upgrade is available at a discount or you can book a seat with better legroom and additional perks like early boarding.

Remember, OTAs are not necessarily always going to be the cheapest. If you book direct you’ll never pay for price markups. When you cut out the middleman, you eliminate the additional costs that OTAs might add to cover their own expenses and profit margins.

You’ll know this because of the transparency of pricing. Airlines will always provide a breakdown of the total cost, including any additional fees or taxes.

Booking with OTAs

OTAs can often negotiate discounted rates with airlines due to their volume of bookings. This results in competitive prices that may be lower than what you can find by booking directly.

Additionally, some OTAs offer package deals that bundle flights, accommodations, and other services together at a discounted rate, further maximizing your cost savings. But Airlines may also offer this too.

But remember that OTAs may charge service fees or booking fees, which can affect the overall cost. Or they may purposely charge inflated change fees to deter you from making changes so they can keep their costs low and offer cheaper prices.

You should always research these fees and consider them when comparing prices. Also, OTAs don’t need to offer the same cancellation or change policies that the airlines do. It’s important to review the terms and conditions before booking your airfare.

promotional graphic with a picture of a couple taking a selfie with a mountain background promoting readers to join the free facebook group "lazy budget travel tips"

How to find the best prices on Flights

Personally, I like to begin my flight search with Google Flights (video tutorial at the end of this post). Google Flights allows you to search multiple airlines, multiple filters, track prices, and much more.

I also like to use the free Travel Arrow Chrome extension which will take my search parameters and filters from my Google Flights search and compare it with other travel sites and OTAs.

Screenshot of a Google Flights search result showing the best departing flights from West Palm Beach to Seattle with options from American, United, and JetBlue airlines, alongside a TravelArrow Flight Compare sidebar.
Travel Arrow Chrome Extension

Customer Service Comparison

One of the biggest advantages of booking directly with the airline is the customer service experience. If you’ve ever had to deal with an OTA for flight changes, cancellations, or other issues, you know how stressful that can be.

When you have an issue with your booking, OTAs are limited in their ability to help you directly, so it may take longer to resolve. If you reach out to the airline, they’ll probably redirect you back to the OTA, causing further delays.

OTAs may prioritize cost savings by cutting back on customer service, allowing them to offer cheaper bookings compared to booking directly with the airline.

However, some OTAs, particularly larger ones, may provide better customer service than others. They may invest more in ensuring a positive customer experience.

So do your research and figure out what you’re willing to deal with in comparison to the money you’re saving when booking with an OTA.

Which Option Is Right for You?

When it comes to booking travel, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Deciding whether to book directly with the airline or through an OTA depends on your personal travel style, trip complexity, flexibility needs, and budget.

When I search for flights, I prioritize factors like comfort, time, convenience, and price.

I’ve learned the hard way about the inconvenience of missed connections caused by flight delays. That’s why I now always try for non-stop flights or those with minimal connections. The value of maximizing my time at the destination outweighs any potential savings from multiple connections.

And don’t even get me started on the hassle of lost luggage. I’ve become a pro at traveling with just a carry-on to avoid that headache. I’ll only check a bag if I’m on my way home.

That’s why I personally choose to book direct with the airline. I appreciate the peace of mind that comes with knowing I can reach out to them directly or visit their customer service counter if any issues arise.

Plus, the convenience of being able to change my flight online without worrying about pesky change fees is huge for me.

Ultimately, finding the right approach for you means considering your own preferences and experiences. It’s about selecting the option that offers the most convenience, and control, and fits your own travel needs.

Want to Travel More for Less?

Become a Budget Traveler! Head over to my start here page and grab my free budget travel cheat sheet  – it’s packed with valuable tips to help you create your own winning budget travel strategy.

Similar Posts