Home Airlines Why I Generally Avoid Using Travel Agencies For Flight Bookings

Why I Generally Avoid Using Travel Agencies For Flight Bookings

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For a lot of frequent travelers, there’s a very obvious reason why booking hotels through one of the many online travel agencies may not be the best policy (you won’t earn hotel loyalty points and your elite status will not be recognized), but because airlines aren’t often seen to be treating travelers who have booked through agencies any differently to travelers who have booked directly, often there isn’t the same level of reservation when it comes to using agencies for airfare bookings. Perhaps there should be.

I like to earn as many points as possible when I’m paying for airfare so it would be fair to say that I’m partly disinclined to use travel agencies when booking my flights because the best credit card I have for airfare spending (my Amex Platinum Card) will only offer me bonus points on bookings made directly with airlines…but that’s not actually the main reason I try to avoid booking with agencies.

I avoid booking with travel agencies because I’m rarely given a good reason to put a middleman between me and the end supplier of the service I’m paying for.

Dealing With Agencies Can Be Frustrating

My reluctance to book flights through a 3rd party has historically centered around how easy I find it to contact and deal with airlines directly and, conversely, how annoying it can be to have to deal with agencies.

Yes, airlines are far from perfect and you can be on hold for quite some time if you don’t have elite status (and sometimes even if you do have elite status) but…

  • Most airlines have phone lines manned by operators that have the authority to get things done.
  • Most airlines have customer service centers dedicated to dealing with their flights and their flights only so they (mostly) know what they’re doing when you call them up.
  • A lot of airlines have Twitter helpdesks that, more often than not, are actually very useful (American Airlines has an excellent Twitter team).

With agencies it can be very different:

  • Often it’s hard to contact agencies via the phone – some insist on emails or an online chat facility. Twitter is almost never a viable option.
  • Agencies often have to contact the airlines if they need to get something changed or corrected so things are frequently not dealt with in a single call/email/chat session.
  • Travel agents almost always deal with a variety of bookings (hotels, cruises, car rentals, etc…) and are often experts in none of them. That’s not very useful if you have an unusual issue or if the issue requires a little specialist knowledge.

I have yet to find an airfare deal through an agency that is so good and so much cheaper than anything the airlines are offering that it outweighs the potential issues I may have if I need to contact someone about my booking.

When Things Go Wrong, Airlines Discriminate

When things go badly wrong, airlines do not treat bookings made through agencies in the same way as bookings made directly with them. Some people are only just finding this out.

I’ve written a few posts about dealing with British Airways’ reluctance to offer refunds during the current crisis and these are examples of some of the comments I’ve been getting from people who booked through an agency…

…and this is what some have been emailed by the airline:

Between unresponsive travel agencies and airlines refusing to deal with customers who didn’t book with them directly, travelers who chose not to book directly with the airlines are currently getting an unfortunate lesson in why 3rd party bookings are possibly not the best idea.

Airlines have a lot of issues on their hands right now so they’re not about to go out of their way to help flyers who chose to book via an agent to whom they have had to pay a commission – their attitude is “the agent did the booking and got their commission, let them deal with the issue”….and I don’t blame them for doing this. I would probably feel the same way.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this only applies to the current situation which (hopefully) is a one-off event that we won’t see again for a while.

If you make a booking through an agency and something out of the ordinary messes with your plans (labor disputes, storms, randomly erupting volcanoes etc…), the airlines aren’t going to be in hurry to help you rebook (unless you have already checked in) – they’re going to deal with everyone who booked with them directly (if it’s an issue affecting a large patch of airspace they may be dealing with thousands of customers) while telling everyone else to contact their agents….and good luck with that.

Assuming you can get hold of the agency you booked through, the agency staff will still have to contact the airline to agree and process any changes and that’s not going to be a swift process.

Bottom Line

I rarely see agencies offering deals that are so much better than what the airlines are offering that it makes it worthwhile to put them between me and the airline offering the flights. The price difference would have to be very significant and the trip would have to be one that I desperately wanted to take before I would be tempted with an agency booking – the potential added hassle usually isn’t worth it.

The next time you see an agent offering a cheaper airfare than the airline itself make sure you really understand what you may be giving up in return for that discount before you hand over your credit card details.

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  1. I respectfully and completely disagree. Clearly you have never dealt with an agency that offers a high touch/high standard of service.
    We act as ombudsmen on behalf of our clients on all matters of complaints including customer service issues, refunds and delayed/lost baggage. The clients are delighted they don’t have to take the time to do these types of tedious tasks and more time available for what they really want and need to accomplish.
    Perhaps you have dealt with the wrong agency, but we have access to sales support desks that regular consumers cannot reach where tickets can be endorsed to other carriers, expired fares can be honored and other waivers granted that regular phone staff would never be permitted to authorize. This includes elite lines too.
    This is in addition to being offer limited amounts of club passes and upgrades to clients that would normally not receive them. Granted this isn’t always possible but at times we can offer this.
    And don’t even get me started with the benefits certain consortia offer clients at cruise lines and hotels/resorts such as upgrades, complimentary breakfast, club access, credit to be used towards incidental spending, etc.
    However, back to air travel. I can’t tell you how many times a client has reached our agency when there has been irregular operations and we’ve gotten them protected and reticketed on another carrier while they’ve still be in the regular line or waited on hold on another line even for their elite desk.
    Clients have easily been saves 24-72 hours at certain destinations because of the benefits we have offered. They have been grateful and are willing to pay the service fee for this type of service. We have gotten seats unblock seats, overbook flights in extreme situations, etc. The list goes on.
    I would encourage you to shop around and find the right agent for you. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    • With equal due respect, what you’re describing isn’t an agency that an overwhelming majority of travelers will deal with.
      This post isn’t dealing with bespoke or boutique agencies that (mostly) the well-heeled use. It’s discussing the myriad of other agencies that operate and act as described in this post and that the vast majority of travelers find online.

      ETA: I’ll happily use a service that costs no more than the airline is charging and can offer a cast-iron guarantee that I’ll be looked after as well (or better) than if I booked directly – I just haven’t encountered one yet.

  2. I agree but when I find international tickets 5 times cheaper on mono do I will use a OTA. Price being equal, airline direct every time.

    • When you find such big price differenes, do you still check the airline offering the flights and all of that airline’s partners? And if you do, is the price difference always as large?

  3. I’ve found only 2 instances in which its more beneficial to deal with an OTA. The first is if you are redeeming UR or MR points thru the portal and can get better redemption rate, ie: 1.5cpp. The second is if you are getting a significant discount, ie: Amex IAP for business class fares. Otherwise its a terrible idea, as evidenced by the 30 plus hours I spent on hold with Amex travel trying to get a refund via Singapore airlines last month. They have just god awful, understaffed, unempowered customer service.

  4. This post seriously errs by not distinguishing between online travel agencies (OTA’s) and real travel agencies owned or run by “travel agents”, particularly CTC’s.

    OTA’s, such as Travelocity are not really travel agencies at all. They are web portals which offer no service, no expertise and actually become a problem if there is any problem. Further, on most itineraries, they fare is the same and in some case I’ve see, higher than the Airline. You will still get your FF credit but that’s all. My recommendation is to avoid unless you do not have a GDS and want to see multiple carriers in one place. Then, choose one and seek out their own website (or real travel agency).

    Hotels are a different story. Most hotel programs i.e., Marriott, Hinton, Hyatt prefer that you book “direct” but still give you stay credits and elite goodies when you book through an IATA appointed travel agency. In fact, almost all large Corporate travel contracts are through an agency of record. In addition, if you are planning a complicated international itinerary with multiple suppliers, airlines, hotels and others, a professional travel agent can provide a great deal of value add.

    Oh, I am an IATA appointed TSI agency (agency that chooses not to book air).

    Happy travels when we can.

    • Well said. As a former full time inside sales travel agent, I can attest to the value that a good full service travel agent can provide. If everything goes well, you never know the difference but having an advocate with (presumably) connections on your side can be invaluable when it hits the fan. Would you prefer to buy a house without a realtor on your side? Same situation.

  5. OTA are (mostly) call centers manned by inexperienced operators (not even travel agents) who don’t really care much about you because, let’s face it, they will never see your face and chances are you will not get to deal with the same operator twice if you have to call. On the other hand REAL travel agents will always work with your best interests in mind and using them is usually a great choice. Now, if you have a lot of time in your hands and can be on the phone talking to different people, and are so savvy that you don’t need anyone’s help or expertise, then do it your own way and more power to you. But please don’t diss the real travel agents. Thank you for reading.

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