Third-party travel site mistakes you should avoid
Online travel agencies may offer great rates on flights, hotel stays -- but you may be missing out on loyalty points or travel protections
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When you need to schedule a flight, hotel stay, car rental or other travel expense, where do you turn?
For many travelers, the answer is an online travel agency or OTA. A joint study by Oxford Economics and Expedia found that 21 percent of travelers use a third-party site to book their trip.
If third-party sites are your preferred way to make travel plans, you need to be sure you’re using them correctly.
While they may offer convenience and affordable rates, you may be missing out on loyalty points, perks or even the best price by booking through third-party sites without comparison shopping first.
Travel portal mistakes: What you should know
Advantages of booking through online travel portals
Sites such as Expedia, Hotels.com, Priceline and Booking.com appeal to busy travelers for several reasons.
“Booking portals offer price comparisons, which is very helpful,” says Matt Kiefer, founder of hostel ratings site Hostelgeeks. These sites feature comprehensive travel listings and they’re often easy to use.
“Furthermore, one big advantage of the booking portal is safety,” says Kiefer. “Some direct websites may not seem legit, or don’t offer a secure payment gateway.”
Isabella Biava, a travel writer at Boundless Roads, says third-party hotel portals make themselves more attractive by rewarding loyalty.
“Some OTAs have a special fidelization program so that after a certain number of reservations, you get a discount, which encourages customers to book through them,” she says.
Where travelers go wrong with online travel portals
Online travel sites may be convenient, but there’s plenty of room for error when booking a trip.
“The No. 1 biggest mistake is that people think they get better deals through the portals,” says Alexander van Dijl, a budgeting coach and frequent traveler.
Van Dijl says travelers may be unaware of additional costs that can be tacked on after the booking.
One traveling couple recently went as far as to sue Expedia over a $50 handling fee, which they say was misrepresented. Even when third-party travel fees are transparent, they may be higher than what hotels, airlines or car rental agencies may charge for direct bookings.
Comparison shopping is a must, says Biava. When travelers don’t compare prices with other websites, “they won’t get the best deal.”
- Take time to check the total cost when reviewing rates.
- For instance, looking at the per-room rate when comparing hotel bookings can give you an inaccurate estimate of the cost if you’re not considering additional taxes and hotel fees.
Other common third-party travel site mistakes
Other common mistakes to avoid with online travel websites include:
- Skipping the fine print. This can cost you if you realize too late that you’ve booked a nonrefundable rate or flight, or you don’t understand the cancellation and refund policy when you need to change your travel plans. If you book a flight directly with the airline, for example, customer service may be able to help you make the necessary adjustments, but “if you booked via a third-party [site], it can create additional hurdles,” says Chelsea Hudson, personal finance expert at TopCashback.com. “If you need to edit your reservation, most portals will charge you a fee on top of the fee the airline charges.”
- Not knowing what’s included. Another misstep, says Biava, is not being aware of what you’re getting for your money. With hotel stays, for instance, you should be looking at what amenities or perks are included, such as free breakfast and dinner.
- Not shopping through a cashback site. You may miss out on a chance to stack rewards or savings if you’re not browsing cashback offers on portals like Ebates, Be Frugal or Top Cashback, when booking through an OTA. “Cashback sites work directly with hotel chains such as Marriott, Hilton and Wyndham, as well as third-party sites such as Expedia and Orbitz, to give customers money back on their accommodations,” says Hudson.
- Paying for unnecessary add-ons. Lucas Horton, traveler and founder of Valeria Fine Jewelry, says it’s a mistake to buy trip insurance through an online travel site. “This almost never pays off and it’s a moneymaker for the portals for that reason.” If you think you need travel insurance, look to your rewards card or an independent travel insurer instead.
See related: Best credit cards for travel insurance
Don’t cost yourself credit card or loyalty rewards
Pay attention to the rules for earning rewards and using additional perks when booking with your card through an online travel website.
- The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card both increase your rewards rate to 10 miles per dollar on hotel rooms booked and paid through hotels.com/venture. However, this is the exception and not the rule.
- If you have the no-longer available Citi Prestige, for example, you might miss out on the fourth night free benefit the card offers if you book a hotel stay through an online portal. This perk is only available through the Citi ThankYou travel portal or the Citi Prestige Concierge.
- If you’re member of a hotel loyalty program such as Marriott Rewards or Hilton Honors, you may also miss out on points or nights toward elite status if you book your stay through an OTA.
- Bookings made with airline rewards credit cards through a third-party generally still earn miles, but depending on how the fare is classified, you may earn fewer rewards than you would with a direct booking. Also, miles earned may not count toward elite status with your card.
- Likewise, booking through a third-party site could mean not earning rewards through your car rental or frequent flyer program. Once again, that could delay your progress in reaching elite travel status.
See related: 3 ways to earn elite status with airlines
Weigh travel rewards redemption against discount bookings
If you’ve accumulated miles or points with a rewards card, consider whether you should leverage them for travel in lieu of a third-party booking.
“In high season, when it’s more expensive to travel, it could be more convenient to redeem rewards,” says Biava. But when it’s cheaper to travel, you may be better off booking with your card through a third-party site to get the discount and earn rewards that you could reserve for another travel expense.
She cautions travelers to do the points-versus-discount comparison across different OTA sites to determine which option yields the most benefit.
Horton offers a basic rule of thumb to follow to determine if a trip is worth using your rewards: multiply the number of miles or points by $0.013, which he cites as the accepted average value of a point or mile.
“If that total is less than the cost of the trip, then it’s a good deal,” he says.
Tip: Not all points and miles are created equal. This is the average point value of some of the most popular rewards points in the market:
Starwood Preferred Guest: 2.4 cents
British Airways: 2.26
American Airlines AAdvantage: 2 cents
Southwest Rapid Rewards: 1.60 points
JetBlue Trueblue: 1.53 points
United Mileage Plus: 1.52 cents
Delta SkyMiles: 1.35 cents
Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1.26 cents
Amex Membership Rewards: 1.19 cents
Citi ThankYou: 1.11 cents
Average for all programs: 1.04 cents
Do the math and compare fares before booking a hotel stay or flight.
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