A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Online Travel Deals

In the beginning, there was the Travel Agent. She (or he) was your guide to all things travel. A trip to their office entailed long fanciful explorations of beautiful brochures and conversations about what insider tips could be imparted, or what deals could be found. Once a price was negotiated, the trip was booked and you spent the next three months (or more) saving to pay for it while you gazed lovingly at the brochure now propped up on your desk next to your family snapshots.

Then the internet came, and it was good. The online era of DIY travel opened up and instead of ringing your favorite airline (remember Continental, TWA, Pan Am?) AND the hotel brand you loved the most, access to databases for prices and availabilities that used to only be the domain of the Travel Agent opened up. It was heady power, and the public began booking their own travel at a rate that almost spelled the complete demise of the Travel Agent profession.

The problem then became the lack of insider knowledge, where were the deals and how to find them? Comparing prices became a pretty involved process and included a lot of effort and a little anxiety. The user had no way to quickly aggregate data to compare prices until some hot-shot Silicon Valley types put together computer programs that started doing just that.

Those aggregators, when they first started, offered a very valuable service to the user looking for the best price.

But then came consolidation and the 80 pound gorilla.

You might be aware that most of the online fare aggregators and travel meta search engines (also known as OTAs – Online Travel Agencies) are only owned by two major companies. Expedia has Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Trivago, CheapTickets and eBookers, among others. Priceline owns Booking.com, priceline.com, KAYAK, agoda.com, rentalcars.com, and OpenTable.

Very quickly travel companies, such as hotels and airlines, who used to negotiate separate contracts with different booking engines – separate contracts with separate rates – now have a clause that calls for “parity.” In this case, parity means that your airline seat or hotel room can’t be sold to a competitor for less. And even in many instances, that same room can’t be advertised on the brand’s own website for less than it is offered to Expedia (for example).

So whether you love or hate the Trivago guy, (and there’s a whole online discussion with its own hashtag even #trivagoguy about if he’s cute or creepy and the fact that he should wear a belt if his shirt is tucked in), you are probably not going to find rates online that vary much for a single brand. For example, if the Napa River Inn is advertising a Standard Queen room for $299 a night – it will be that price on Expedia, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and NapaRiverInn.com.

Does that mean there really aren’t any deals left? Lots of times you can look online at a brand’s site – or call — for their “Book Direct” or other packages which have become some of the best values available. In order to incentivize guests, some hotels offer free parking, gift baskets, waived resort fees, or even an upgrade, and these packages are not available to the OTAs. Those hotels are also 100% dedicated to handling the needs of their guests and their properties. Unlike the OTAs who have tens of thousands of properties, and not necessarily the best record at dispute resolution.

Where the OTAs do excel is in showing multiple hotels, rental car agencies, and airlines head-to-head. However it’s up to you to determine if you are comparing apples to apples — room type, star rating, location, etc. can all vary wildly.

And to make it even more interesting, not everyone places all of their availability online. Some companies, hotels in particular, will often have room types that aren’t available via OTAs and might only be discovered via a phone call or quick trip to their website.

Another thought-provoking tidbit about the aggregators and meta search engines is that if you book through them, you are their customer and not the customer of the hotel, airline, or rental car. That aggregator hides much of your personal data from the end business and making updates or cancellations to your reservations has to be done through the aggregator. It’s an interesting relationship for the traveler – previously you were a shared customer with the hotel/airline/rental car. Today, the aggregator wants to keep you as their customer and manage as much of your travel business as they can, getting big commissions for pushing your toward their preferred clients.

Wishful travel planning has become almost a daily online activity. 2017 statistics say that travelers consume 23 hours of digital travel media before booking online. Interestingly, around 30% of travel is still done through a Travel Agent, and another 30% booked direct.

Clearly, the ease of online price checking has open whole new worlds of travel opportunity, but you may want to consider the benefit of old-fashioned relationships if the discount isn’t eye-popping enough.