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Primary Sellers vs. Online Travel Agencies: A Game of Tug-of-War

Don’t be surprised if you feel you’re in a tug-of-war, playing the part of the rope; you are. Primary sellers—airlines, hotel chains, cruise lines, and such—are pulling you one way, online agencies and information providers are pulling in the opposite direction. The basic struggle is to “own” you as a buyer of travel: Each side wants to be your go-to source of information and especially your go-to place to buy tickets and arrange travel services. What’s at stake, of course, is big money—both to minimize the costs of paying someone else to do something you can do and also to maximize revenues by selling all of your travel, not just part of it. This is going to be a long, drawn-out struggle, and as the party in the middle you need to know how it will affect you. A few interesting skirmishes just arose.

If you’ve recently tried to compare airfares on CheapoAir, Hipmunk, Mobissimo, or maybe a few others, you may have been surprised to see no listing of Delta’s flights and fares. That’s because Delta told most of the so-called “metasearch” websites to, as Samuel Goldwyn might have said, “include us out.” At least so far, however, a few, including Google Flights and Kayak, still include Delta, and the big online travel agencies (OTAs) still list and sell Delta. Nobody has explained clearly exactly why Delta moved against some and not others. Delta’s overall motive appears to be to pressure you to buy your tickets on the Delta website, so it would seem counterproductive to cut ties with folks who just provide information and link to its site while maintaining ties to folks who actually sell tickets. Go figure.

Expedia announced it would start selling “branded” airfare packages on some lines starting sometime next year. In case you haven’t already seen the concept in action, “branded” airfares are fare packages that include varying sets of bundled extras, such as a checked bag, no-charge ticket refunds, early boarding, seat selection, and such, at varying price levels. Air Canada, American, and Frontier pioneered the concept, and American’s implementation is the most robust to date. Previously, the only way for you to find those branded packages has been on each airline’s own website. You can expect the other big OTAs to follow suit, but not until next year some time.

Marriott has been playing tricks with Wi-Fi recently:

  • In October, the FCC fined Marriott $600,000 for jamming hotel guests’ personal hotspots, generated either through smart devices or special portable hotspot units.
  • In November, Marriott announced it will finally extend free Wi-Fi from its midprice brands to its eight upscale brands—but only to members of the Marriott Rewards loyalty program.
  • Then, it also announced free Wi-Fi to anyone, but only those who book directly with Marriott, not through a third party online or a brick-and-mortar travel agency.

Earlier this year, I castigated Marriott for encouraging you to tip housekeepers—a move I interpreted as an attempt to move those workers into the “tipped worker” category and thus subject to a much lower minimum wage.

The take-home here is that as a consumer, finding and buying your best deal will get harder, not easier. Specifically, this means:

  • Make sure you get information from all airlines before you buy a ticket, especially if you plan to check baggage, select a seat, or use any other extra-fee service. You already know you have to search Southwest separately; others will go in that direction, at least partially.
  • Regardless of how infrequently you travel, consider signing up for the loyalty program of any travel provider you might use. It will get you free Wi-Fi at Hilton hotels, Marriott, and probably others, along with discounts at Accor and promotions of all kinds from just about everyone.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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