Travel agencies

How We Fell in Love With Online Travel Agencies and Their Sneaky Booking Tricks

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Our reliance on cheap flights with few questions has led to very questionable travel bookings. Photo/Zhu Hongzhi Unsplash

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They were adored by budget travellers, despised by high street travel agents – is the era of the online travel agent (OTA) over?

Travelers typed their travel plans into the black box of the internet search bar and were presented with seemingly endless options on e-tickets. Airline and travel agency quote rates couldn’t match, few wondered how it worked.

Everything worked like magic, until it didn’t.

Now, after two years of navigating Covid-19 restrictions and the chaos of post-pandemic headaches, travelers are becoming aware of the tricks OTAs were pulling to promise vacations that were too good to be true, and the problems that they can cause. Like the Wizard of Oz, the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn the curtain on some internet travel agencies, and not all the heel clicking in the world will bring you back to Kansas.

New Zealand consumer watchdog Consumer.nz called OTA eDreams by name yesterday, warning travelers to avoid the company. The company has been accused of taking travellers’ money and trust for granted, despite being powerless to do anything about it.

So why have so many travelers trusted companies, many of which had never heard of, for so long and with thousands of dollars worth of airfare?

The answer is that for about two decades it worked.

Wizard of Oz: The pandemic has drawn the curtain on OTA towers.  Photo / Unsplash
Wizard of Oz: The pandemic has drawn the curtain on OTA towers. Photo / Unsplash

The heyday of the OTA dates back to around 2018. Spurred on by search engines and comparison sites, most travelers had no qualms about choosing the cheapest quote from seemingly identical itineraries. They used the same web evangelism from the tech giants that gave us Facebook and Google.

Seemingly endless websites and quote comparisons for flights and hotel nights, each claiming to discount the next by a dollar amount. Some had particular niches like last-minute hotel discounts or cheap airline tickets. There were even OTAs specializing in “wrong fares”, scraping the internet to find fares published with the wrong price to offer $600 tickets to Europe and other “mind blowing” fares.

Searching through recognizable comparison websites – Skyscanners and Trivagos – travelers would be offered a second tier of OTAs, which would be the companies offering to sell you a ticket.

There was GotoGate, DreemWorld, EzTravel – some you had heard of, some you hadn’t heard of, all of which had a maverick approach to spelling, capitalization and travel.

Online travel agencies were somewhat of a high-risk, high-reward approach to travel. When it was all “tickety boo” they were your ticket to exotic locations and discounted fares, when they weren’t you were left dry.

Since the pandemic, some of the tricks used to undermine competition have come to light and it’s not pretty.

Bulk buying and reselling discounted tickets isn’t the only deception. Cost reduction in customer support and other areas are obvious shortcomings. Some OTAs keep passengers’ money, wait for fares to drop before booking and collect the difference. (Always request your e-ticket in advance!)

Dot gone: Is the era of online travel agencies over?  Photo / 123RF
Dot gone: Is the era of online travel agencies over? Photo / 123RF

Unfortunately, with recent increases in the cost of travel, fares have only gone up. This has led to last minute cancellations or OTAs offering passengers less direct (cheaper) routes than those originally booked. According to some travelers, some OTAs have been brazen enough to ask passengers to pay the difference on more expensive fares before they can fly.

In 2018, Dream World Travel was exposed by The Times for taking passengers’ money and never buying tickets. This is something many OTAs still do.

Following Consumer NZ’s scathing criticism of eDreams, eDreams parent company ODIEGO OTA claimed their brands had saved travelers “a million hours” of travel research. They see this as a service in itself.

However, other than presenting attractive – often unrealistic – travel deals, OTAs don’t offer much else to travelers. This convenience had helped them corner the market. Before the pandemic, about 80% of travelers booked flights through a comparison website, according to ODIEGO. But those burned by OTAs during the recent travel chaos are unlikely to return.

Currently, Consumer NZ recommends that you “book with a New Zealand-based travel agent with a good reputation for customer service, or book directly with the airline.”

Going forward, travelers will be willing to spend more time researching and a little more on flights to avoid the chaos of last-minute cancellations left behind by OTAs.