With the current brouhaha swirling around the scuffle between American Airlines and online travel agencies Orbitz and Expedia (in case you haven't heard, American has pulled its fares from Orbitz and Expedia has pulled American's fares from Expedia.com and Hotwire.com), I've seen a lot of blog post comments basically saying, "Who needs online travel agencies? What good are they? I always book directly with the airline's website anyway. Good riddance!"
But before we dance a jig around the grave of these third-party web sites, let's all take a deep breath and remember what travel agents — whether online or "bricks and mortar" — are good for.
Online travel agencies do at least six things well that airline sites don't (meta search sites such as Kayak offer some, but not all, of these advantages):
1. Quick and easy comparison of not just fares but schedules on many different airlines at a glance
It's not just fares; it's schedules, too. If your main criterion is arriving, say, by 2 p.m. and aa.com shows all flights arriving by then at $300, then wouldn't you like to quickly see that another airline has 2 p.m. arrivals for $150?
2. Flexible date searches
Let's say you can only see your girlfriend in Toledo when the fare is $150 or less and you'll travel any time it goes that low. Most airline sites just do flexible date searches over plus- or minus-three or –seven days (although aa.com does this over 30 days), making flexible date searches time consuming and tedious. Travelocity.com and Cheapair.com perform searches over 330 days ahead, and Orbitz.com, Hotwire.com and Cheaptickets.com do 30-day searches quickly and easily, plus they do so on many airlines at once. (Meta search sites such as Kayak typically only do a plus or minus one-to-three day flexible date search).
3. Multi-airline itineraries
It might be cheaper flying your first leg on Airline A, your second on Airline B, and your third on Airline C. Online travel agencies (and good bricks-and-mortar travel agents) will work out the best fare in such scenarios; an airline site will keep you on its own system. Even meta search sites like Tripadvisor.com/Flights and Kayak will send you only to Expedia.com or Orbitz if the best deal is flying out on Frontier and back on US Airways.
Ever notice the TotalTrip option on Travelocity? On some trips, especially last-minute ones, we've seen hotel plus air packages for half what air alone costs.
5. Opaque fares
Sites like Priceline.com and Hotwire.com sell fares for less than airline sites as long as you don't care to learn the airline and exact flight times before you buy. You can save hundreds, especially on last minute fares.
6. Code share airfares
Go to Orbitz.com and you'll often see an odd thing: two flight itineraries leaving and arriving at exactly the same time on two different airlines — let's say Alitalia and Delta. But Delta is selling the trip for $1,000 and Alitalia for $600. This is a code share arrangement. Delta has bought seats on Alitalia and is free to sell them at any price it chooses. Go to Delta.com and you'll only see the $1,000 fare. If you're a savvy traveler, you might think to check Alitalia's web site; if you're not, you'll overpay. Orbitz's fare matrix is the easiest way to quickly identify code shares (Orbitz's sister site Cheaptickets.com which, by the way, still shows American's fares, works the same way).
So here's the bottom line: if American ends up selling its fares the same way Southwest does (and as Airtran will after the merger) — i.e., only on its own website — and then Delta, United/Continental and US Airways follow suit, then you'll be spending a lot more time online looking for the best deal. And you'll probably end up spending more on airfare.
Sure, you can always use online travel agencies to find the lowest fare and then book directly with an airline, but that strikes us somehow as killing the "golden geese."