PSA: Booking A Flight Through Third-Party Travel Sites Can Be Risky

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Last month, scammers posing as Expedia stole thousands of dollars from travellers hoping to confirm or change their bookings over the phone. But booking flights with the real Expedia — and any other third-party site like Travelocity or Kayak—comes with certain risks, too.

If your plans change, you might not be entitled to a refund, as one Redditor recently discovered (and almost lost $US5000 in the process). If you’re planning to book a flight through Kayak or Expedia, here’s our warning: Always comparison shop first and carefully read the fine print before you hit the confirm button. You might save yourself from hefty fees and a few lengthy phone calls with customer service.

Changing or cancelling your plans won’t be easy or cheap

To change your plans booked via a third party, it will require you to contact that booking site’s customer support line; these lines often handle travellers’ requested changes on a case-by-case basis. (If you booked a low-cost carrier however, a third-party site may require that you contact them directly.)

At the very least, you should expect to pay change fees for both the website and the airline. Vayama, for example, charges around $150 for a change. Meanwhile, airlines also charge change fees. In other words, changing your flight via third-party sites will almost always be more expensive than if you had booked directly through an airline and changed plans.

There are exceptions, however. If you’re making changes within 24 hours of booking your reservation, you can likely cancel or change your itinerary for free, depending on the site’s policy; Expedia allows for free changes/cancellations within one day of booking. If you bought additional insurance while checking out on the site, you also may be covered, but that depends on the terms and conditions of your particular insurance type.

As for cancelling nonrefundable tickets purchased through third-parties, well, there’s no easy answer. Over on Reddit, u/1exp purchased five tickets costing $US5000 via Travelocity, only to discover he’d booked the wrong dates; in short, after a conversation with the airline and another with Travelocity, he didn’t see a dollar back until his bank finally stepped in (and miraculously negated all charges for unclear, legal reasons). Here in Australia, our consumer protection laws are a little more robust but you can still run into trouble - especially when trying to change a non-faulty service simply because you changed your mind.

So what happens if an airline cancels your trip? Well, as Christopher Elliott writes for Mercury News, an airline should refund the fare and your third-party site should step in to provide you with a refund. Of course, it will be a pain in the arse and you may not immediately see the refund until you contact the website yourself and likely follow up again and again.

Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

You might miss out on sale pricing or other options for flights

Airlines would much rather you book directly to avoid referral fees given to booking websites. For this reason, airlines might incentivise you to book directly by providing additional points or miles. (You might also receive more points for a direct booking while using an airline co-branded credit card as well.)

There are other basic benefits, too. As Travel and Leisure writes, third-party sites may not account for flight sales or promotional offers in their results. And when you book through sites like Kayak, generally, you’re not given the option to reserve seats; you’ll have to contact your airline instead, making the overall booking process more annoying than you’d like if you just want to reserve an aisle seat and be done with it.

Before you book, always compare an itinerary on an airline website with one you’ve found on a third-party site to see what you might be missing out on, particularly points or miles. Some third-party sites like Orbitz and Expedia also have their own rewards programs, but they’re only really worth it if you’re a frequent buyer from the site.

Screenshot: Josh Ocampo, Kayak

You may not be notified of changes or updates

Here’s another factor: You might not even be notified of any status updates on your itinerary. As the Points Guy writes, one traveller wasn’t notified that his flight from Paris to New Jersey on a business-seat-only plane had been switched out for an all-economy flight with little legroom and no TVs (gasp). According to the passenger, he had booked via a third-party site but his contact information was not passed onto the airline, so he was never informed of the change.

Obviously, booking directly through an airline comes with one major perk: They have your email or phone number and will reach out with changes to your itinerary. If you’re booking a flight through a third-party website, download your airline’s app and pay attention to any news regarding your flight.

Booking through third-party sites does have a few benefits

Given all that we’ve said to convince you that booking through third-party sites isn’t a good idea, it’s not always a terrible decision. For one, if you’ve found a cheap itinerary combining flights from different airlines and have no intention of changing your plans, then by all means, book the flights! It’s easier and might save you the time and effort it would take to book on different airline websites.

Always comparison shop, understand the risks, and read the fine print of any site’s contract before you book. (You should review change and cancellation policies, in particular.) And never book flights with a debit card — if you request a refund, it might take weeks or even months to see it reflected in your account. And while browsing through third-party sites, use websites like Skyscanner to browse through flight options, too. It’s a search engine, rather than a booking site, so it’ll help you make the best possible decision.

And don’t forget: Some low-cost carriers don’t appear on most major third-party booking sites, so always do your own research, too.


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