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You’re likely already familiar with online travel agencies, even if you don’t travel often. These companies — such as Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz — act as intermediaries between you and a travel provider.
Booking your travel through an OTA can be a good idea in some circumstances, but you’ll want to be wary of its pitfalls. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of online travel agencies, so you’ll know what to use to book your next vacation.
Pros of booking through online travel agencies
There are certainly advantages booking through online travel agencies, though you’ll find different experiences whether you’re using public OTAs — such as Kayak — or private ones like those offered by your card issuer, such as the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal.
✅ It may be cheaper
When searching for flights online, you may see different prices for the same routes that vary across websites. Although it may be a result of fare type — for example, some search results may not clarify that a fare is basic economy rather than main cabin or economy — other times, the difference comes down to competition for your business.
Online travel services will often offer slightly lower prices on flights in an effort to entice you as a customer. This is true for both hotels and airlines.
» Learn more: Best credit cards for online travel-booking websites
✅ It can earn you more rewards
Have you ever heard of shopping portals? By logging into a shopping portal, you can earn rewards for purchases made with many online merchants. Some hotel chains, such as Hilton, Marriott and IHG, can be accessed through shopping portals while still booking directly on the hotel website. In this way, you can earn rewards with the hotel directly as well as with the shopping portal.
The same isn’t true for shopping portals and most airline sites. However, many public online travel agencies are accessible through shopping portals, which can then earn you rewards for airfare bookings. By opting to book in this way, you’ll be able to earn points or cash-back rewards through the shopping portal that you’d otherwise miss.
Some card issuers will also reward you heavily when using their online travel services. Clear examples of this can be seen with Capital One and Chase. With the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, for example, you’ll get 10 miles per dollar spent on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel.
While these numbers are high, it’s important to remember that there are trade-offs when booking through an OTA rather than directly with a hotel or airline. We’ll get into that a little later.
Online travel agencies offered by your card issuer may not feature the same prices as booking directly; you’ll want to compare these before committing to a purchase.
Some card issuers will go so far as to give your points more value when redeeming through their online travel agencies.
This is true with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. When redeeming points on the Chase travel portal, you’ll get 1.25 cents in value per point rather than 1 cent elsewhere.
Cons of booking through online travel agencies
There are several downsides when it comes to using online travel services for booking travel. It mainly comes down to the fact that travel providers prefer that you book directly with them — and offer more perks to woo your business.
❌ It can be harder to change a booking
Ever needed to change a flight after it's booked? No matter the reason, attempting to alter or otherwise cancel a flight can be a hassle — especially if you’ve booked through a third party.
Generally speaking, rather than offering you direct assistance, both hotels and airlines will recommend you contact the online travel agency you’ve booked with in order to make any changes.
While you may be able to make changes or get refunds with the travel agency, airlines and hotels can — and will — offer much more flexibility when you’ve booked with them directly. You may also be subject to additional fees charged by the online travel agency, which can erase any savings you’ve received.
❌ You may not receive elite benefits
This is the real kicker for anyone wanting elite status. Although airlines will almost always recognize your elite status and allow you to earn miles even for bookings made through an online travel agency, hotels and rental car companies will not.
This is especially important for hotel chains. Earning elite status with hotels generally relies on elite night credits. Although these can be earned in a variety of ways — including having complimentary status by holding certain credit cards — the main method of acquiring elite night credits is by spending nights in hotels. Rooms booked through an online travel agency do not count toward elite status as elite night credits.
Additionally, you will not receive any of the benefits of your existing elite status if your booking is through a third party. This can mean the loss of perks such as room upgrades, complimentary breakfast and even free Wi-Fi.
❌ It may be more expensive
Did you know that many hotel chains have best price guarantees? Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott and IHG all have a guarantee that’ll give you either points or a discount if you find a better rate elsewhere.
These guarantees are generous; Hilton, for example, will match the rate and then discount it by a further 25%.
Although you’ll need to file claims for these guarantees and they face limitations — such as a 24-hour window from when you made the booking — you can save a lot of money on your stay if your request is approved.
Online travel agencies can be hit or miss
There are two sides to every coin and this is no different, as there are several benefits and limitations of online travel services. Depending on your needs and loyalty program status, you’ll want to choose whether to book directly with a travel provider or rely on OTAs to do the job for you.
Booking travel through credit card portals from issuers like Chase and Capital One can earn you big rewards. But if you anticipate altering your travel plans or aim to earn elite status instead, booking directly is the way to go.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card