Travelers searching for the absolute cheapest flights can often find super low airfare on third-party retailers. Websites like BargainAirTicket and Faregeek display not only published airfares, but some times also discounted tickets offered exclusively through their network. (These flights maybe have been bought in bulk for a low rate, and then resold.)
Search engines like Skyscanner and Momondo can be a valuable resource for finding these discounted tickets. Depending on your flight search, they might point you to the airline's website, or to one of these lesser-known third-party website. But booking a flight on these third parties isn't always as clear-cut as buying directly.
Related: The Ultimate Cheap Airlines Guide
To take the mystery out of booking flights with online retailers, we spoke search engine experts, airline representatives, and frequent fliers who regularly use third parties.
How do you find third-party retailers?
Lucas Taulealea, a data scientist based in Canberra, Australia, says he flew about 130 times last year — making him something of an unofficial expert on flight searches.
“My game plan when booking flights anywhere,” Taulealea told Travel + Leisure, “is to first check Skyscanner. This is my process of discovery.\”
A search for flights from New York City, for example, might show deals on eDreams, GotoGate, and Vayama, in addition to those fares bookable directly through the airlines.
Taulealea said that after finding the flights he wants to purchase, he compares them to the prices listed on the airline's website. “If there is little to no difference, I'll book through the airline site every time. If not, I'm forced to use the third-party site.”
How are third-party retailers vetted?
“Skyscanner has a very stringent process to vet any online travel agency partners that appear on the site,” Randi Wolfson, Skyscanner’s head of communications for the Americas, told T+L. Wolfson said that Skyscanner will remove any online travel agencies that don’t adhere to the search engine’s internal standards.
There is even a team in place to “monitor this for the company, as well as [to asses] customer feedback on any online travel agency partner.”
Travelers searching for flights with Skyscanner will also see a relatively new Quality Ratings feature, which uses price reliability, fees, customer service reviews, and ease of use to rank ticket providers, from zero to five stars. Additionally, the Quality Rating applies to airlines, which means you might actually prefer booking through 4.5-star Hop2 (which provides 24-hour support and has a database of more than 600 airlines) than with the 3.5-star airline, LATAM.
Travelers who prefer searching for flights with a website like Momondo can be also be assured that a degree of screening has taken place. “We require from our airfare suppliers that the price is bookable, and includes all mandatory fees,” said Lasse Skole Hansen, a public relations manager from Momondo. “If there is ever an issue with our suppliers' fares, we'll always investigate to solve the problem.”
There are perks to booking with the airline.
Booking directly with airlines may not always be the cheapest option, but doing so can confer many benefits. And airlines are increasingly conscientious about making it more appealing to cut out the middleman.
“There are many advantages, from both a cost and customer experience perspective,” Morgan Johnston, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communications, told T+L. JetBlue has recently made a push to get customers to book directly with them, instead of on any other websites.
Johnston says travelers who make reservations directly with JetBlue have access to exclusive fares and promotions that may not appear on OTAs — meaning it’s at least wise to check the airline’s website before booking elsewhere. And should travelers find a better deal with a third party, JetBlue offers a best-fare guarantee. “If customers find a lower [fare] elsewhere on the same day of purchase, the airline will issue a $100 credit for travel on JetBlue,” said Johnston.
In addition to that, JetBlue loyalty program members earn an additional 3 points per dollar spent when booking on JetBlue.com. That perk won’t apply to JetBlue flights purchased with a third party.
It’s not just bonuses that make direct bookings more appealing. There are also certain pitfalls that can be avoided this way.
“Many OTAs aren’t able to offer the full range of options found by booking directly,” Johnston said. That means fare options like traveling with a pet or purchasing Even More Space seats can only be done when buying tickets on JetBlue.com.
And if anything goes wrong with the reservation, JetBlue may not be able to help you. “If a customer requests our assistance in managing their booking,” explained Johnston, “our customer support often has to direct them to make those changes through their booking agency.”
Everything else to consider:
Despite JetBlue's warnings, that doesn’t mean travelers who book with a third party have no recourse when things go wrong. But that’s where quality reviews become crucial. GetawayASAP has five-star reviews from Skyscanner, but their customer support department is only open Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. PST. If your flight is on a Saturday, or outside of those operating hours, and you run into an issue, you might be out of luck.
But many third-party retailers have privately negotiated rates — and if a bargain is what your after, that fare could be the bottom line.
If you want to avoid booking with a third party, Taulealea says to plan far ahead. “What I've found is that the price of [third-party tickets] is never any cheaper than the airlines’ if you book well in advance.”
Taulealea also noted that third-party sites are typically inflexible when it comes to making changes to your itinerary (or will charge hefty fees to do so).
“I've had to change flights booked through a third-party site a few times. In one instance, I tried contacting [them] to change the flights, but they were completely inflexible…at which point I tried contacting the airline to see if they could just shift the flight. But because it wasn't a delayed or cancelled flight, I was out of luck due to having booked [the flights] on another website.”
Ultimately, travelers should never underestimate the benefits of booking directly with an airline. But if you find an unbeatable third-party deal, check to see if the website has a high quality rating and offers 24-hour customer service.