As you might have noticed, many of the lowest fares we find are offered through an Online Travel Agent (OTA) aggregator such as Momondo or Skyscanner. If you've previously booked all of your flights directly with the airline, you might be wondering if it's both advisable and reliable to book your flight with smaller, lesser-known OTAs found on Skyscanner and Momondo. To address this, I've put together this set of FAQs to give you our take on the matter:
1. What is a flight fare aggregator and how do they work?
Momondo, Kayak and better-known websites like Skyscanner all function as flight fare aggregator engines. These tools will collect and compare prices for any particular flight route, by comparing prices offered both by the airline and by the various Online Travel Agents (OTAs) selling tickets for the same flight.
This is not dissimilar to what Google Flights does. However, the difference is that while Google Flights compares only fares offered directly from the airlines and other major booking sites (such as Expedia and eDreams), these aggregators compare fares from smaller booking sites as well, ones who are more likely to sell flights at a discount to the price offered by the airline itself. They also sometimes include some routes that Google Flights does not list.
2. Is it safe to book with these smaller Online Travel Agents?
This question comes up a lot and I remember how confused I was when these websites first began to pop-up. Here's our take on the topic:
The biggest fear for some travellers is that an Online Travel Agent will take your payment and keep it, without ever issuing a ticket for your purchased flight. Based on our experience, this fear is baseless and OTAs listed on Skyscanner or Momondo, which are vetted to some degree before being listed on these aggregators, simply do not do this. That's not to say that they are all ethical, pro-consumer companies, but they do not try to scam consumers in this way.
Online Travel Agents are lawfully required to issue a ticket for the price at which you made the purchase in order to process your payment. Many OTAs in the United Kingdom are also ATOL protected, which means you have an extra layer of consumer protection against any wrongdoing. Other EU countries have similar protection schemes.
If you want to be extra certain, simply google: "Booking site name + ATOL" to make sure they are ATOL Protected. You should see a verification similar to this:
In the US, though, there is no agency that booking agents can register under like the ABTA or ATOL, which protect consumers in case a company goes insolvent. But, check out our guide on what happens when flights to or from the United States are canceled here if you are in search of some guidance on what else you can do to protect your booking.
3. Are there other OTA tricks I should be looking out for?
Indeed, some of these sites are known to try and squeeze a few extra fees out of you in other ways. Here are the most common tricks to look out for:
- Avoid booking over the phone - Most of these booking sites offer a phone number if you'd like to avoid booking online. When possible, I advise using the online portal instead. Phone agents, who often earn a commission, will sometimes see that you're trying to book a cheap fare and will try to find another way to increase the price you pay. Calling over the phone also opens you up to the next two items as well.
- Fare no longer available trick - Every now and then, an Online Travel Agent will call you within a few minutes of your booking to tell you that the price you booked at is “no longer available” and you must accept a refund or agree to pay a higher fare. If that does occur, don't panic! Simply decline their new fare, accept the refund, and go on to book with another agent offering the next best fare.
- Extra bag fees trick - Keep an eye on the bag rules throughout the booking process. While rare, we have heard of agents claiming that you have to pay extra to add a checked bag, even on routes where bags were definitely included in the fare. Again, this generally only happens over the phone.
- Extra service fees - Make sure you double-check all of the passenger details you enter when booking tickets via an Online Travel Agent. Many of them will find ways to charge extra, often-high, service fees for even minute changes.
4. Are there ways to save on checked bag charges when booking with an Online Travel Agent?
In 2020, airlines now charge anywhere between 0 and 140 pounds or euros ($180) per return trip to add a checked bag to your itinerary. The actual amount will vary wildly by route & airline.
Online Travel Agents will often get incentives to sell bag-inclusive tickets and are able to sell you a checked bag at a cheaper fare than the airline. Some OTAs choose to do this, while others choose to keep the price the same or even mark it up higher in order to earn a higher margin on your ticket.
For this reason, it's important that you always compare the bag fee charged by the OTA you are booking with against the fee charged by the airline itself (or even other OTAs). If an Online Travel Agent is offering the cheapest fare but is pricing up checked bags, you can always just book the ticket and add a checked bag directly with the airline after the ticket has been issued.
Note: It's also not uncommon for some OTAs to sell economy-standard ticket class fares, which include early seat selection, meals, checked bags, and other perks for only slightly more than the airline itself sells economy-basic tickets, and the savings can be quite significant. We see this often with Norwegian Air and Virgin Atlantic for example.
5. How are smaller Online Travel Agents able to offer cheaper fares than the airlines themselves?
Firstly, many airlines, primarily major international carriers, offer incentives and discounts to third-party agents to market their tickets. This allows OTAs to pass some of those savings on to you in order to secure your business.
That said, not all airlines will do this and there are other ways Online Travel Agents can generate revenue, some of which are less consumer-friendly:
- Fees - Expect hefty service fees for any future amendments to your booking, if required. That includes name changes, date changes, cancellations, etc.
- Reselling reserved tickets - OTAs have the ability to put a reserve on a number of seats months in advance. Many will often reserve a certain amount of seats, on popular routes, at a low price knowing that they'll be able to sell them at a higher rate later in the year.
- Poor customer support - They'll often outsource customer support to third party companies in order to save on costs.
6. What about all of the bad reviews Online Travel Agents have?
It's true that most OTAs, even well-known ones like Expedia, will have plenty of negative reviews online. As a rule, customers will generally go further out of the way to report a negative experience than leave a positive review when everything goes as expected, resulting in a high rate of negative reviews.
While it can be a sign of poor customer service, it doesn't mean you won't get the ticket you purchased. As you've read above, some OTAs can be a bit clever in trying to make as much as possible from each customer, but they won't take your money and run.
7. When should I book directly with the airline vs. booking with an agent off Momondo?
This just depends on your situation. For me, if my travel dates are set in stone, I'm more likely to book with an agent and save the extra cash, but here are my general guidelines for like-minded travellers:
Book with an Online Travel Agent if:
- Savings exceed at least £20-£30 for a long-haul fare.
- You are 100% certain you will be taking the trip on these dates.
Book directly with airline if:
- You're the type of traveller who is more likely to extend your trip later on or change travel dates.
- The flight is with a budget or charter airline, such as Eurowings, Spirit, Easyjet, Wizzair or TUI, all of which do not offer discounted fares to OTAs.
For more information on Momondo, Skyscanner and Online Travel Agents visit our ultimate guide to finding cheap flights to anywhere.