Online Travel Agencies (or “OTAs”) are becoming more and more popular and widespread as new OTAs continue to enter the picture. OTAs are websites like Expedia, Booking.com, RocketMiles, and BonWi.com that allow you to book your travel via a third party. But it’s not always so clear if these OTAs are better deals for your travels, so here are some things to consider.
Why should I use an OTA?
OTAs are popular because they simplify the searching and booking process by allowing you to easily sort and compare prices for different properties. Since they often buy rooms at wholesale rates, they are also sometimes able to offer better deals than booking directly with the hotel.
You can find my list of the top OTAs here.
Great search features
One of the things I love about OTAs is that you can often search cities by neighborhoods, districts, landmarks, etc., and that makes searching much more efficient. For example, when planning a stay in London I can search for hotels located around iconic locations like the Tower of London or center them around areas like Covent Garden.
Also, you can utilize features like map views to scan the price ranges in different neighborhoods. Filtering your searches by price or by “stars” is another easy way to get rid of all of those hotel options that aren’t in your price range.
Thus, even if you’re not planning on booking with an OTA, you might still consider using it as a preliminary search tool to find a hotel that’s right for you.
You can often find cheaper prices on OTAs, too. It’s true that some hotels will price-match what you find on OTAs, but based on my personal experience, this isn’t very common and hotels often have a minimum floor which they will not go below, regardless of what price is found on an OTA.
As an example, I once found a Marriott hotel in Houston listed on an OTA for around $80 cheaper than the price listed on the hotel’s website but when I called in to get a match, I was told that there was no chance of that happening.
So OTAs can provide you with a host of benefits but you should be aware of certain things when booking airfare and hotels.
There aren’t many drawbacks to booking airfare through an OTA. This is because you’re still able to earn your frequent flyer miles even when you’ve booked through an OTA. You should always check to make sure that the OTA is providing you with all of the flight routing options and that the prices are competitive, since OTAs won’t always show you all of the possible routing options and prices.
Another one of the potential drawbacks is that some cards like the The Platinum Card® from American Express only allow you to earn 5X on purchases made directly with the airlines. This means you might be losing out on some bonus points by purchasing airfare through an OTA , although the purchase should still code as “travel” so for cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’d still likely be earning bonus rates.
Booking hotel stays through an OTA presents different concerns than airfare. The biggest issues are that you probably won’t earn any credits for nights or stays and that you might not get your elite status perks honored.
Earning stay credits and hotel points
When booking through an OTA, you’ll almost certainly not earn any credits for stays/nights or even points for that hotel’s loyalty program. I’ve heard of people getting credit/points when booking through an OTA before, but those cases usually involve some type of a glitch.
This is why you always want to compare your savings/rewards that you’re receiving from the OTA to what you would’ve earned if you booked directly with the hotel.
Receiving elite perks can be hit or miss when booking through OTAs. Generally, both Marriott and Hyatt are great about honoring your elite status even when you make a booking through an OTA.
On Marriott stays, I’ve been able to still receive Marriott Platinum Elite benefits like free breakfasts, free internet, lounge access, upgrades to suites, and late check out.
The trick is to call in to the front desk before you arrive and request them to insert your loyalty number into your reservation. While Marriott and Hyatt are good about honoring their elite perks, you might still have some luck with other hotels chains on a case-by-case basis.
OTAs have a limited inventory of hotels and rooms. For that reason, you may not ever see a hotel you’re looking for on an OTA. And it’s also possible that the hotel you’re looking at is only showing you a fraction of the room choices available to you. Typically, finding standard rooms isn’t terribly difficult, but if you’re looking for specific rooms like ocean-view rooms or corner rooms, they don’t always show up in the searches.
Pre-paid bookings and cancellations
When booking anything through an OTA, it’s very important to know what exactly your cancellation policy is. Many OTAs now offer you different options, such as pre-paid bookings or pay when you arrive bookings. Take extra care to read what the cancellation policy is, since sometimes OTAs give you somewhat arbitrary cut-offs for cancellations.
If something happens and you need to cancel your booking, the decision to offer you a refund is usually made by the property. Sometimes the OTA will act as a liaison to assist you with obtaining the refund, but often you are on your own.
Not many OTAs offer great rewards when compared to what you earn when you book directly with hotels. What’s more, it takes a lot of booked nights to earn enough points to have a worthwhile redemption opportunity when booking through Expedia.
However, some OTAs, like BonWi.com, offer fantastic rewards. I was even able to earn over a 40% return on a Hyatt booking before, which is phenomenal. With sites like BonWi, it’s possible to earn enough points for worthwhile redemptions with only a couple of stays.
Even if the rewards are not that lucrative, some rewards are still better than none. At some point you’ll probably visit destinations that don’t have many (or any) properties belonging to your hotel loyalty program of choice. When booking these properties, it often makes sense to go with an OTA since you can earn rewards on top of your savings.
Booking for friend and family
Also, OTAs are great because you should be able to make bookings for your friends and families. This means that even if you’re not going to be involved in the actual traveling at all you can still book the travels through an OTA and earn rewards for that OTA’s program.
When choosing to book through OTAs you always have to weigh your other options. For example it’s possible to earn alternative savings with:
- Discounted hotel gift cards (sometimes even purchased with 5X)
- Seasonal hotel promotions (e.g., double the base points)
- Online cash back portals
- Amex Offers
Many times you can stack some of these options together and create savings that outweigh the savings/rewards you’d receive from the OTA. So again, it’s important to do some basic math before booking with an OTA so you don’t limit your savings.
Overall, there’s nothing wrong with booking with OTAs. In some circumstances you’d probably want to avoid them to earn stay credit and points with your favorite loyalty program but sometimes the savings will be so high with an OTA that you’re better off forgoing what you would earn with that hotel’s loyalty program.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.