Searching for the best air fare for your trip can be confusing. If you follow the process I recommend for finding the cheapest flight, you’ll go to Google Flights and see a list of fares. Then, searching on Skyscanner*, Momondo or Kayak, you’re presented with a long list of fares for the same flights. (And if you’ve not seen the process I recommend, you can find it here: How to Find Cheap Flights Without Losing Your Sanity.)
Some of the fares from the online travel agencies (OTAs) on Skyscanner, Momondo and Kayak can be significantly cheaper than the fares on Google Flights. This is great news when you’re looking for the best value flights but why are these OTAs cheaper? And is there anything you should watch out for when you book with them?
Why are the Same Flights Cheaper with Skyscanner, Momondo and Kayak?
Flights are often cheaper through Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak compared to Google Flights because of the different way these services work.
Google Flights only shows fares direct from the airlines and from a very small number of large travel agencies. One of the reasons for this is to keep its searches very fast and flexible.
Skyscanner, Momondo and Kayak work a little differently. When you do a flight search on one of these sites, they send your flight search to loads of OTAs. A few seconds later you see the search results with the fares that have come back from the OTAs. As there’s a lot of competition between OTAs you can usually find a cheaper fare by searching on Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak.
How Some Online Travel Agencies Can Offer Lower Prices
The OTAs on Skyscanner, Momondo and Kayak primarily compete on price so they can be at the top of the list of fares in your flight search results. There’s not much else they can compete on as they are all selling the exact same flights.
To keep their prices as low as possible OTAs cut their costs as much as they can. This is great when you’re looking for the lowest fare but these OTAs are businesses and need to make money somewhere. Whilst they don’t make much money from the air fares you book, they do make money from the fees they charge during and after booking.
Fees Before And After Booking
Some OTAs will try to get you to pay various additional fees during the booking process. For example, you may be offered a higher level of customer service from the OTA, various types of insurance and sometimes inflated baggage fees.
Generally, I don’t recommend you add these extras as they don’t tend to be good value for money. It is worth spending a moment looking at what they’re offering though, just to be sure that you aren’t going to need the service they’re offering.
The only exception to this is when you’re booking a hand baggage only fare. A small number of OTAs have checked bag fees that are actually lower than those charged by the airline. It’s always worth comparing the bag fees between the OTA and the airline to see if you can save. Take a look at my article about the cheapest way to add a bag to your booking for a step by step process to make sure you always get the best deal on your bags.
As well as trying to get you to buy additional services whilst booking, some OTAs also charge high change and cancellation fees. Most of the time you aren’t going to be thinking about changing or cancelling your flights before you’ve booked them. But if you think there’s a reasonable chance you might need to change or cancel then check carefully what fees you’ll pay.
In this situation I recommend you compare the fees that the OTA charges with those that the airline charges. You can then decide whether to book with the airline and pay a higher fare with lower change or cancellation fees, or to book with the OTA and pay a lower fare with higher change and cancellation fees.
Fares That Can Be Booked When They Aren’t Actually Available
This is going to sound odd but bear with me whilst I explain: very occasionally the fare you see and book with an OTA isn’t actually available. This happens very rarely but I’ve included this here as I want you to be prepared should it happen to you.
So, why do OTAs advertise and then allow you to book a fare that isn’t actually available? Well it turns out the process for booking flights between the OTA, airline and the booking systems is very complex. For various reasons (including cost) some OTAs don’t confirm with the airline that your fare is still available at the moment you book.
Essentially, the OTA accepts your booking, charges your credit card and then sends your reservation request to the airline. The vast majority of the time the airline confirms the fare and issues your tickets without any problems.
However, if the airline doesn’t have seats at the fare you booked, it can’t issue your tickets and it will refuse the reservation. This is annoying and frustrating but it doesn’t mean the OTA is trying to scam you. The OTAs would very quickly go out of business if they started to scam money out of their customers.
What To Do If This Happens To You
If this happens the OTA will get in touch with you and offer the same or alternative flights, often at a higher price. I strongly recommend you don’t accept the alternative flights the OTA offers unless they are for the exact same price and the flight times work for you.
Instead, tell the OTA that you want a full refund and then start your search again on Google Flights and Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak.
I don’t want to scare you off booking a cheaper flights via Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak. This is a very rare occurrence but it’s better you know about it in advance and are prepared should it happen to you
One final note: always book your flights with a credit card. It doesn’t matter whether you’re booking directly with the airline or with a travel agency, booking with a credit card gives you an extra layer of protection from the credit card company.
Wait Before Booking Other Parts Of Your Trip
As a general rule, I recommend you wait for the OTA to confirm your tickets have been issued by the airline before you book other parts of your trip. This way you won’t have to cancel accommodation or car hire if your flights aren’t confirmed by the airline.
It’s normal for there to be a gap of a few hours up to a couple of days between you booking your flights and the airline issuing your tickets. You’ll know your tickets have been issued when you receive your ticket numbers. Airline ticket numbers are always 10 digits long and contain only numbers without any letters or other characters.
If you want to be absolutely sure that your tickets have been issued, go to the airline’s website and check your reservation using the airline’s booking reference, which the OTA will email to you.
How To Decide Where To Book Your Flights
So, taking all of this into consideration, where should you book your flights? I always start by comparing the prices. If there is only a small difference in the flight prices between Google Flights and Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak, say less than £20, I’ll usually book directly with the airline through Google Flights.
If the price difference is bigger, I’ll usually book the cheaper flights with Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak.
On the rare occasion that there’s a reasonable chance I’ll need to change or cancel my flights, I’ll compare the change fees charged by the cheapest OTA with the change fees charged by the airline, along with the fares.
Booking cheaper flights with Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak can be a good way to save money on your airfare. Remember the tickets are cheaper because the OTA has cut its costs and this may mean high fees for changes. Also be aware of what to do in the rare event that the online travel agency can’t reserve the flights you booked.
I’ve booked many flights through travel agencies on Skyscanner, Momondo and Kayak and I’ve never had any problems. As long as you’re aware of how they work they are a great way to get low flight prices.
What kind of savings have you made by booking through an online travel agency? Let me know in the comments below.
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