You’ll often come across an online travel agency when you’re using price comparison sites such as Momondo or Skyscanner. By booking through an online travel agent, it’s often possible to pay a cheaper price. But is it really worth it?

Cathay Pacific Lounge Kuala Lumpur

Recently, Ryanair have been doing a lot of online travel agency bashing. To be fair to them, they have a point. The minute something goes wrong, your first point of contact won’t be with the airline you’re booked to fly with. Instead, it’ll be with the online travel agency you used to book your flight. This is because they’re responsible for managing your booking, and any problems which might emerge before you fly.

This is becoming particularly evident during the current difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people across the world saw disruptions to their travel plans. And in turn, the demand for a refund, or a rescheduled flight surged. So too did complaints about poor customer service, an attempt to fob off customers with travel vouchers, or months upon months of waiting for a refund. Some handled it better than others, but on the whole, it wasn’t an exercise in good public relations.

In the case of those who booked with an online travel agency, the majority will have been told by the operating airline that there was nothing they could do. Instead, customers were told they needed to contact their travel agency first. Unfortunately, online travel agencies are notorious for their poor levels of customer service, slow response times and poor outcomes. The result of this is many found it difficult to get their money back.

When things go wrong

The truth is, airlinesย canย take over an online travel agency booking. The problem is, manyย won’t. When we travelled with Cathay Pacific, we booked with an online travel agency. The primary reason being the price was โ‚ฌ50 cheaper each than booking direct. Due to the travel disruption in March, we saw our flights being cancelled and schedule changes across our planned itinerary. We were lucky. Cathay Pacific were happy to make modifications to the booking, and process changes directly. They did not insist that we dealt with the online travel agency instead. In truth, this was a dose of good fortune.

Cathay Pacific could have insisted that we made contact with the online travel agency. Essentially, the travel agency would have been the ones who had to try and action any changes. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, actually managing to talk to someone. The second, is the added fees. Many online travel agencies will charge you additional amounts of money before they will make any changes or modifications. This is regardless of the reasons behind the disruption. Thirdly, they’re slow. If you’re just a few hours away from taking your flight, don’t count on an online travel agency being able to fix your problem within the time you need them to.

Then of course, are the typically long refund times. A couple of years ago we booked a cheap ‘mistake fare’ to Mauritius. It was very cheap (โ‚ฌ180) so we weren’t entirely surprised when Air Kenya / KLM decided not to honour it. We booked through an online travel agency, and as such, they were the only point of contact to obtain a refund. And it was slow. Very slow. It took more than 6 months before the money was refunded.

When things go right

It isn’t all bad. As mentioned above, it’s often possible to make savings by booking with an online travel agency. If you’re making a simple return booking, in normal times, it can be a trouble free experience. But of course, it’s impossible to predict whether an airline will make a change to your itinerary or if there’ll be some sort of problem along the way.

Recently, we booked some flights with Wizz Air from Valencia to Vienna. Just days after booking, Austria changed it’s travel restrictions, meaning all arrivals from Spain would need to quarantine or present a negative PCR test. After seeing it’d cost โ‚ฌ150 each to do a PCR test, we decided we wouldn’t be able to take our flights.

Wizz Air categorically refused to entertain the idea of either a flight change, or a refund. Their line was that travel restrictions were outside of their control and the flight would still be operating. To be fair, I had expected this response. What I hadn’t expected was that the online travel agency we had used, Kiwi, were willing to entertain a refund, albeit a partial one. It was possible to use the Kiwi website and to instantly request a partial refund. We paid โ‚ฌ18 for 2 people to travel from Valencia to Vienna. Wizz Air wouldn’t refund any of this. Kiwi were happy to offer a refund of โ‚ฌ10.

It’s true, this isn’t a full refund, but it is significantly better than that being offered by the airline, and I was very surprised that they were willing to offer a better solution. This is just one example though, and obviously if we’d spent a larger quantity on our tickets, the amount we would have lost would have been far greater.

So, should I use an online travel agency or not?

Generally, I would always advise to book with the airline directly. As you have seen though, we don’t always follow this advice. If you have a complicated itinerary definitely book direct. Likewise, if there is any travel disruption, book direct. This is because you have far more chance of a positive resolution if you are able to deal with the airline directly and don’t have to use a middle man.

I would only use an online travel agency if the discount in price was substantial (over 10%) and I didn’t expect there to be any change to my plans, or because of travel problems or restrictions. Of course, the issue is you can never entirely predict the future. While apart from the long refund times I haven’t had a problem with an online travel agency, I put this more down to luck than anything else. In particular, during disruption this year, Cathay Pacific essentially carried out a favour by agreeing to take over the management of my booking and making changes through their call centre. Had they refused to do this and made us deal with the online travel agency, we’d have been in a far more difficult situation.

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