Search flights with travel agents or comparison sites?

Posted on Nov 21st 2018 By obptravel

Talking to some friends the other day, I noticed that many people still don’t know the difference between a flight comparison site and an OTA (online travel agency). Thus I wanted to take some time to explain the differences between them. I would also like to use the opportunity to briefly discuss whether it is better to search for flights with a comparison site, an OTA or even go direct with the airline.

On the surface, the differences are not that obvious. These types of websites are aesthetically similar. They have search boxes, travel offers, etc. OTAs and comparison sites compare air fares from multiple airlines. It is possible to filter airports, length of stopover… One of the latest trends is to compare flying against other transport modes, such as rail or buses. This feature is becoming increasingly common with both. So what then is the difference between an OTA and a flight comparison website?

The fundamental difference between an online travel agent and a flight comparison site (also known as meta-search engine) is that transactions take place on the former, while the latter does not process payments. Edreams, Opodo or Southall Travel are examples of OTAs. As a customer, you buy the flight from them. Payment takes place on their website or app. And if a problem arises with the booking, it is they whom you should contact. Liligo, Momondo or Skyscanner (as well as our own TravelCritix flight search) are examples of flight comparison websites. Try performing a search on any of them, and you will see that the moment you select a flight to book, your browser is re-directed to a different page.

You will find the following paragraph on Skyscanner’s help menu confirming this:

Skyscanner is a travel search engine. We help you plan your trip but we don’t take bookings or payments ourselves. Instead, we pass you through to your chosen travel provider (airline or travel agent) and you make your booking directly with them. This means we don’t have access to your booking information.

Furthermore, it is quite common for OTA sites to display telephone numbers, but you will not find them on price comparison websites. They will often persuade customers to purchase a flight+hotel package, or additional services such as insurance or after-sales care. You will find several OTA’s on a comparison site, but you won’t see meta-search websites on a travel agent. That is because comparison sites are just a distribution channel for OTA’s.

You might then be tempted to think… Why bother use a comparison website? Well, the reality is that, for most people, price is the single most important factor when choosing a flight, and meta-search engines are extremely efficient at finding cheaper flights. They work with many different travel agents, including some that are highly specialised and with different costs, and are therefore able to show more diverse and ultimately cheaper flight options.

Here are a couple of examples of flights, with the same dates, origin and destination, that are cheaper with a comparison site than a travel agent.

This is a London (LHR/LGW) to Cincinnatti (CVG) flight search in September.

Best price with Edreams: £809.99

Best price with Momondo: £711

And this is the result for a Glasgow (GLA) to Addis Ababa (ADD) flight in October:

Best price with Opodo: £615.99

Best price with Skyscanner: £599

In both cases, the different flight comparison sites beat OTA’s on price. The second example is even more remarkable as it is exactly the same flight.

Flight comparison websites have a better capacity to combine flights with different stopovers, airlines, times… that result in cheaper flights. A business person may be not be interested in saving fifty quid in exchange for a sixteen hour layover in country X. But a backpacker might see it as an opportunity to save precious cash and visit a new country.

Don’t think, however, that using a flight comparison website is a guarantee to find the lowest price. OTA’s are also very competitive, and some, like, use complex algorithms that are able to find low-cost flight tickets around the world. The differences between them are narrowing. Nevertheless, generally speaking it is safe to say that flight comparison sites are generally cheaper than travel agents. What’s important here is to understand that flight comparison websites usually provide more options, while travel agencies tend to offer better services.

What about airlines?

airline stamp
You can, of course, book a flight directly with the airline. Airlines have a great advantage over everyone else as they own the inventory (i.e. the flight seats available), through the use of global distribution systems (GDS). They control the fares, and through the use of technology, change prices to reflect supply and demand. Comparison websites don’t display real-time prices either, so you could end up paying a different fare than what was advertised to you in the first place. There have also been cases of airlines imposing additional fees on travel agents, as they seek more control over the different sales channels.

Airlines, however, are naturally limited to selling only the flights that they (and their codeshare partners) operate. This reduces their scope dramatically. It is like going to the local market and buying all your groceries from the same stall, without comparing prices from others.

Still, loyalty can be rewarding and frequent flyers know this very well. It is like your favourite grocer, who knows you by name, offers priority treatment and throws in free apples with each purchase. This type of consumer does have the motivation to buy flights directly from the airline.

Flight search conclusion

Now you know the difference between price comparison websites and travel agents, but you may still be wondering what the best strategy is to find flights. The answer is simple, but it does depend on the type of consumer. If you are just after the cheapest fare, I sincerely recommend using at least two different price comp websites. Within seconds, you will be able to find a flight that suits your budget.

If you are the kind of person that needs to speak to someone for advice, you are looking for a flight+hotel package, or are more concerned about after-sales services, then it may be better to use a travel agent.

And if you are a frequent flyer, then you know you are playing a different ball game. You might still find it useful to compare flight prices online however, by filtering those airlines that allow you to earn air miles.

In any case, it is important to understand the route you are flying, the airlines that operate it, alternative airports, etc. in order to make the best possible purchase decision.

Good luck finding cheap flights… and keep travelling the world!

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