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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.
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.