Today we have a Reader Question concerning the purchase of airline tickets, asking if it is recommended to buy either from the carriers directly or through an online/offline travel agent.
Deciding where to purchase airline tickets is usually a mixture of price and convenience, but what few people know is that this decision might have consequences that impact how smoothly your trip goes, especially if suddenly a change or irregular operation occurs.
Boris asked by email:
We’re taking a family vacation to Japan in the spring of 2024 and I’ve been checking prices for several airlines through Google Flights and Kayak during the past few weeks. Kayak offers tickets that are between $300-400 less per person compared to Google and the airline itself. In the distant past we always bought tickets from Flight Centre because they were so cheap but I’m not sure if they’re still around. Is there any provider I should avoid?
Generally speaking, there are three distribution channels customers purchase their airline tickets these days, and those are:
- Airline Website or Reservation Hotline
- Online Travel Agent (OTA) Portal such as Expedia, Orbitz, Booking etc.
- “Brick & Mortar” Retail Travel Agent with a physical office
There are also search engines such as the ones mentioned by Boris (Google, Kayak, Skyscanner) that try to identify the best price and then route you to the website where they detect the best available price for the flights based on the date the customer entered.
Note that these search engines don’t always return accurate results. They can be off and act upon ghost availability or not include certain fees levied by the OTA.
Both online travel agents and regular ones that still work with a storefront have the ability to sell opaque fares, commonly known as BULK tickets which are negotiated fares. These always undercut the lowest available rate by a significant margin. There are drawbacks, though.
Any tickets that are not booked directly with the airline can only be changed by the issuing agent, and you’d always have to go back to that office, hoping they’re available when you need them. For example, when you need to change a date or cancel the ticket (if it’s at all cancellable).
I recently managed to get Japan Airlines to deal with a ticket issued by American Express and make a change, but that was done per exception on their part.
If your flight gets canceled by the airline on the day of departure for operational reasons, then the carrier can take the ticket over and work with it, but anything that’s a voluntary change usually has to go through the travel agent.
Technically the airline CAN touch the ticket after the first segment has been flown (like in my JAL case), but they oftentimes still refuse to do so. You can try and call back or talk to someone else.
Whenever I can, I try to get my tickets issued by an airline directly without a travel agent as a go-between. But when there are hundreds of dollars per ticket in play, I’d seriously reconsider.
In terms of earning points for my ticket purchases on the credit card, the Amex Platinum (U.S. version) earns 5 points per USD spent no matter if it was booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel. Chase Sapphire Reserve as well as Amex Green both earn 3 points per USD spent.
I would always outweigh the price advantage compared to the possible inconvenience I have to endure when there is something I need to change on my itinerary. Especially if you have status and could theoretically just call up the airline, it’s extremely annoying when they tell you there’s nothing that can be done and refer you to your travel agent.
Especially when you travel on another continent with a significant time difference, especially on the weekend, it’s possible that you won’t be able to reach anyone at your travel agency’s office.
I’d want to save at least a couple hundred dollars to make it worthwhile to have a non-direct booking, for example, through the Amex International Airline Program.