Every once in a while I travel a lot for my work. Depending on the gig, either I make the reservations or the company makes them. Over the past few years I’ve picked up a few things that I want to share with you concerning whether you should book your flights through an online travel services or through the airline you want to fly.

RC Air Show
Creative Commons License National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
via Compfight

Just so you know, I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who travels a lot, so I have airline travel cards. I know a few other things, which I’ll also mention here.

First, let’s look at price. You will almost always save money by going through a service than the airline. You’ll save more money the further out you book though.

For instance, when I had the ability to book 3 months in advance, the savings were astronomical. The closer you get to the date the savings start to drop. The only difference might be if you can package your deal with your hotel and a rental car, which you can’t do through the airline.

Second, let’s look at conveniences. If you book through a service, depending on which one you select, you’ll get to pick where you want to sit based on what they show is still available.

You get to do the same if you book through the airline. However, if you happen to be a member of good standing (which means you fly a lot) you possibly qualify for a lot of free extras that will cost you going through a travel site. For instance, not only do I get my first bag fee waived but I get bumped up to first class if there are any available seats.

Even if I don’t get that, just being a member means I get to board the plane before most everyone else who’s not in first class, which means I always get my bags in the cubby on the plane instead of having to check anything. Trust me, that’s a major benefit of convenience!

Now, if you’re not a member but still book through an airline, you get the opportunity of paying for a minor upgrade which allows you to get on the plane early. You also get to pay for the option of moving to seats closer to the front, which you don’t always get if you book through an online travel service.

Third, problems with travel plans. Whenever I booked through an online travel service and things went wrong with the flight that were out of my control, they become pretty useless. That’s not their forte, and some of them direct you back to the airlines to take care of your issue. The thing is, since you didn’t book through the airlines they’re not as inclined to work as much for your benefit. That’s not the best customer service but it’s the truth.

When you booked directly through the airlines they’re a bit more accommodating. At least they’ll work with you to try to get you either where you’re going or back home. However, you’re still just a step ahead of those folks who booked through a travel service, though it’s always nice being ahead of the game.

If you have a rewards card life is sweet. More than half the time, when I finally find out that I’m about to have an issue I’ll check email to find that they’ve already re-booked me, and often in first class. If I want I can call to change flights, but most of the time I let it go, especially if it looks like an improvement over what I had.

Other times, when they haven’t heard about the problem before me, it’s been very easy to make changes to my flights without any extra cost. That’s something else you have to worry about when you book through other sources; there might be fees for changing flights, even if it’s not your fault.

My conclusion… if all you want to worry about is the cost savings, you’d be wise going through an online travel service. If you want to protect yourself for all the other things (which, by the way, you can also get by going through a travel agent; didn’t want to leave that part out), then it’s smarter going more direct.

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