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Consumers Win With Booking Fee Elimination

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Man with laptop (Photo: IndexOpen)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 24, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AirTran, American, booking strategy, Continental, Expedia, frequent flyer, Frontier, low-cost airline, Northwest, Orbitz, Sarah Pascarella, technology and gadget, Travelocity, United.

In the past, we editors at SmarterTravel have often recommended booking airfare directly on an airline's website to save the booking fees associated with online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. These fees used to add $5 or more to the cost of a flight.

In recent months, however, the major OTAs eliminated booking fees for flights, and an experiment was in order. Without the booking fees, did it still make sense to skip the OTAs and book direct? Were our past recommendations still valid? I tested out several flights to find out. Let's just say the times are changing—and the results may surprise you.

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The Experiment

I tested nine different flights—three city pairs, three flights each—for my price comparison:

  • New York to Los Angeles
  • Atlanta to Seattle
  • Chicago to Dallas

City pairs were chosen because of hub status, wide range of daily flights, and variety of available carriers.

I started with a flex-date search on Travelocity to determine the cheapest times to fly and the available carriers. Once I had narrowed down the cheapest dates, I priced out the three least-expensive providers on the companies' own sites, and then compared their fares against the exact same route, flights, and dates on the three major OTAs. I priced each flight out to its final booking screen to determine price, taxes, and fees.

Editor's Note: Southwest flights were not included in this test because Southwest flights are not available for booking on any third-party travel agency.

In the results, virtually every flight I checked was the same price, whether you booked with the airline or with an OTA.

New York to Los Angeles

Flight details: September 12—American Flight 1757 (LaGuardia to St. Louis), connecting to Flight 449 (St. Louis to Los Angeles). September 19—American Flight 180 (Los Angeles to JFK).

Round-trip ticket price, with all taxes and fees:

  • American: $269.80
  • Expedia: $269.80
  • Orbitz: $269.80
  • Travelocity: $269.80

Flight details: September 12—AirTran Flight 216 (LaGuardia to Milwaukee), connecting to Flight 210 (Milwaukee to Los Angeles). September 19—AirTran Flight 56 (Los Angeles to Atlanta), connecting to Flight 358 (Atlanta to LaGuardia).

Round-trip ticket price, with all taxes and fees:

  • AirTran: $278.90
  • Expedia: $278.90
  • Orbitz: $278.90
  • Travelocity: $278.90

Flight details: September 12—Continental Flight 1033 (LaGuardia to Houston), connecting to Flight 137 (Houston to Los Angeles). September 19—Continental Flight 750 (Los Angeles to Cleveland), connecting to Flight 5927 (Cleveland to LaGuardia).

Round-trip ticket price, with all taxes and fees:

  • Continental: $278.90
  • Expedia: $278.90
  • Orbitz: $278.90
  • Travelocity: $278.90

On this route, there was no difference in prices between all suppliers tested.

Atlanta to Seattle

Flight details: September 19—AirTran Flight 15 (Atlanta to Seattle). September 26—AirTran Flight 16 (Seattle to Atlanta).

Round-trip ticket price, with all taxes and fees:

  • AirTran: $279.20
  • Expedia: $279.20
  • Orbitz: $279.20
  • Travelocity: $279.20

Flight details: September 19—Frontier Flight 421 (Atlanta to Denver), connecting to Flight 843 (Denver to Seattle). September 26—Frontier Flight 844 (Seattle to Denver), connecting to Flight 428 (Denver to Atlanta).

Round-trip ticket price, with all taxes and fees:

  • Frontier: $300.40
  • Expedia: Exact matching flights not offered in flight search options
  • Orbitz: $300.40
  • Travelocity: $300.40

Flight details: September 19—Northwest Flight 9107 (Atlanta to Minneapolis/St. Paul), connecting to Flight 165 (Minneapolis/St. Paul to Seattle). September 26—Northwest Flight 7404 (Seattle to Minneapolis/St. Paul), connecting to Flight 9255 (Minneapolis/St. Paul to Atlanta).

Round-trip ticket price, with all taxes and fees:

  • Northwest: $300.40
  • Expedia: Exact matching flights not offered in flight search options
  • Orbitz: $300.40
  • Travelocity: $300.40

In this test case, again I found the same prices across the board. However, for these particular flights, I was unable to find the exact routes/flight times on Expedia for two out of the three test cases. Note that, for the experiment purposes, in this case not every OTA offered as full a lineup of flight options as the airline itself.

Chicago to Dallas

Flight details: September 26—American Flight 2321 (Chicago to Dallas/Ft. Worth). October 3— American Flight 2344 (Dallas/Ft. Worth to Chicago).

  • American: $245.20
  • Expedia: $245.20
  • Orbitz: $245.20
  • Travelocity: $245.20

Flight details: September 26—United Flight 801 (Chicago to Dallas/Ft. Worth). October 3— United Flight 654 (Dallas/Ft. Worth to Chicago).

  • United: $245.20
  • Expedia: $245.20
  • Orbitz: $245.20
  • Travelocity: $245.20

Flight details: September 26—Northwest Flight 3546 (Chicago to Detroit), connecting to Flight 1185 (Detroit to Dallas/Ft. Worth). October 3—Northwest Flight 3573 (Dallas/Ft. Worth to Minneapolis/St. Paul), connecting to Flight 132 (Minneapolis/St. Paul to Chicago).

  • Northwest: $266.40
  • Expedia: $266.40
  • Orbitz: $266.40
  • Travelocity: $266.40

Again, this experiment showed no cost-savings benefit from booking directly with the airline, as the OTAs all had identical pricing.

So, What's Best for Consumers?

The playing field has been leveled, and clearly, the old adage of booking directly with the provider to save a few dollars no longer applies. So, who should you book with? The question becomes less focused on price and more on what you value as a consumer. As prices were the same across the board, travelers have a clear choice: a one-stop shop (OTAs) or brand loyalty (individual airline).

The convenience of using an OTA enables travelers to search across a variety of providers, and once it's time to book, travelers can have confidence in knowing they're getting the same price as they would find on the airline's own site. Also, there's something to be said for the convenience of being able to search a wide variety of hotels and car rentals in the same place.

Brand loyalty, however, is still the hallmark of the airlines—rewarded through direct customer service, potentially more of the favorite airline's flight choices (as evidenced through the limited options in the Atlanta-Seattle searches), and frequent flyer booking bonuses. Editor-at-Large Tim Winship, SmarterTravel's frequent flyer expert, noted that (at press time) Continental and United are offering 500 bonus miles for bookings made on the respective company sites, and JetBlue awards double points for bookings made on its own site.

We've also been big advocates of comparing prices before booking airfare. Does this rule still apply, given that you can find the same prices between OTAs and the airlines? In a word, yes. This was a controlled experiment, with fares tested within minutes of each other and on very specific flights. Additionally, this test did not take into consideration the many new fees that airlines are charging, which can drastically change the actual cost of your ticket.

You'll always want to check a variety of factors for your upcoming trip, including several flight times, providers, and flexible dates (if you can). Only by checking several sources can you ensure you're getting the best value for your trip. And once you do book, whether it's with an OTA or with the airline, you'll know that you've made an informed purchasing decision.

Have you found similar results to our experiment? Do you tend to prefer booking with OTAs or with an airline directly? Share your tips and expertise by submitting a comment below!

(Editor's note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com)

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