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Searching for and booking an airline ticket can be overwhelming. There are so many factors to consider, including which airline you’re flying, travel dates, ticket prices, and more. With the abundance of booking options, it’s hard to know where to find the cheapest seats.
What’s reassuring to know is that for the most part, OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) usually offer similar airline ticket prices, as do the airlines themselves. What you have to pay attention to is the benefits you’ll get (or not get) depending on where you book.
Rundown of the best sites for booking cheap flights
The best websites for finding the cheapest airfare include:
- Google Flights
- Directly with the airline
- Mistake fares
As you can see, some of these sites are travel search engines (think Kayak and Google Flights) while others are OTAs. We’ll explain what an OTA is along with the benefits and drawbacks of using an OTA.
What is an Online Travel Agency (OTA)?
An OTA is an online marketplace that allows travelers to research and book travel, including (but not limited to) flights, hotels, cars, cruises, activities, and more. OTAs you may be familiar with are sites like Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline.
Should I book directly through the airline or with an OTA?
When deciding whether to book directly with an airline for through on OTA, there are a few things to consider. Some of the positive things about booking through an OTA include:
Lots of travelers like to book hotels and flights through Orbitz or Priceline because these sites offer a simple way to search multiple airlines and hotel chains at once. And if you don’t have loyalty to a certain airline or hotel, online travel agencies can help you find the cheapest travel prices.
Plus, you’ll get an organized travel itinerary when you book through an online travel agency. And you can view and manage all aspects of a trip in one place, including airfare, hotel stays, and rental cars. This is ideal for families or groups traveling together.
When you book airfare through an online travel agency, you’ll typically have 24 hours or until midnight of the following day to cancel your flight.
Many airlines also have a similar policy when booking directly, but some don’t offer a refund if you cancel a last-minute booking. For example, with United Airlines you can only get a refund within 24 hours if you made your purchase one week or more prior to the originally scheduled departure flight.
Due to the current COVID-19 crises, some airlines are offering more generous change and cancellation policies when booking directly.
Some online travel agencies offer a price guarantee, which makes it possible to get a refund should you find a price drop after booking a hotel reservation. In some instances, this is a paid service, but it could make sense if you’re booking far in advance. It’s also worth noting that a number of hotels have price guarantees too. So it’s worth comparing what you’ll get when booking directly through a hotel versus an OTA.
Double dip rewards
You can earn additional rewards or cash back when booking through an online travel agency by first going through a shopping portal like Rakuten or TopCashBack. I recommend checking Evreward or Cashback Monitor to see which portals are offering the best deals when you’re booking.
Many online travel agencies also have their own loyalty programs, which allow you to earn points for each dollar spent on their website. These rewards can be used for future travel booked on their websites. This is a nice way to earn points on stays at independent or boutique hotel stays where you usually don’t earn any points.
Some of the drawbacks of booking through an OTA include:
You’ll miss out on elite status perks
When you book hotel stays through an online travel agency, you typically will not get elite status perks. This means no room upgrades, late check-out or hotel points for your stay.
Also, keep in mind, if you’re participating in a hotel promotion, like IHG Accelerate, you’ll have to book directly to get credit.
That said, you should enjoy frequent flyer benefits and earn miles if you book flights through an online travel agency. Just be sure that you’re not booking a Basic Economy ticket. Because these restrictive tickets don’t include seat assignments. And you’ll pay more to stow a carry-on in the overhead bin.
Some online travel agencies add booking fees that are generally non-refundable. If you have to make a change to your itinerary, you may wind up paying a fee to both the online travel agency and the airline itself.
Bonus points for booking directly through the airline
Airlines sometimes award bonus miles for booking directly with them instead of an online travel agency. For example, JetBlue offers up to 8 points per $1 spent when you book at instead of an online travel agency.
Price differences when booking through an OTA
Certain airlines add fees to airfare bought through online travel agencies to encourage folks to book directly instead.
For example, you’ll pay an extra ~$20 fee when you book flights through sites like Orbitz or Expedia on airlines like Lufthansa and SWISS Air. If you’re traveling with family or a large group of friends, these fees can add up!
However, sometimes booking through an OTA can actually yield savings versus booking directly with the airline. It can be worth comparing the prices on an airline’s website against a few different OTAs to see which is offering the best deal.
What are the best websites for booking cheap flights?
Expedia is an OTA that has been around for years. Some users like being able to book multiple types of travel on the same platform, which is where Expedia can be useful. As you can see, you’ll have the option of booking hotels, flights, cars, travel packages, activities and cruises.
They also offer their own rewards program, Expedia Rewards. In essence, the Expedia Rewards program works much like any other loyalty program — you earn rewards by booking trips and you can use those rewards for discounted travel in the future. In many people’s experience, the program is more valuable when it comes to booking hotels as opposed to flights.
Google Flights is my go-to travel search engine. I start there when I being the process of planning a trip. It’s an easy way to get a wide array of prices and route options from almost every airline. I also really like their price tracker. If you’re booking far in advance it’s a great way to track price trends and try to book when prices are at their lowest.
It’s also nice that you can search and filter your results based on a variety of criteria. And you can see prices in a date grid, which is a great way to find the less expensive tickets.
Just note that not all airlines are included. With Southwest, a reader-favorite here at MMS, you’ll have to go directly to their site to search and book tickets. You won’t find the airline listed when searching on Google Flights.
Kayak is another popular search engine. Much like Google Flights, you can plug in your flight info and Kayak will compare prices from a variety of different websites. This puts everything in one spot, so you can see where you’ll find the best deals.
Kayak also lets you filter your search results in various ways and allows you to compare prices before you’ve even started your search. When you go to select your dates, you’ll see the high and low prices displayed. If your travel dates are flexible this is an easy way to search for cheaper flights.
Kayak also offers a “cheap flights by destination” section on their site. Which offers yet another way to search for discounted airfare if you plan to travel to a popular city like Chicago, London, Seattle or Paris.
Momondo is another widely used travel search engine. With Momondo, it’s easy to see when and where you can save money by shifting your travel dates and times. Like Google Flights and Kayak, they also offer a price tracker and filter options.
What’s extra special about Momondo is the way in which they display search results — something that’s excellent for those who are more visual. As you can see, the varying fares are represented in a bar graph so you can easily see when you’ll find the lowest prices.
Like many of the other sites, they also offer a price tracker and filtering options. And a neat feature is the option to mix and match fares. That way you can potentially lower the cost of a round-trip ticket by combining cheap fares on different airlines.
Skyscanner is yet another travel search engine, meaning it doesn’t sell flights directly. The system will show you a variety of flight options with links to the airline’s website or OTA to complete the purchase.
A great feature of Skyscanner is the ability to select “Everywhere” to search for the cheapest flights on your chosen dates. Once you hit search, the system will show you the cheapest options to 40+ countries. After selecting the country that you’d like to travel to, it will show you a breakdown of ticket prices to a few different airports.
I’ll also mention Travelocity, another OTA that has been around for a long time. Like many of the other sites, it allows you to search based on a variety of criteria and filters. And it offers a flexible dates feature too. They also offer a Price Match Guarantee, which offers a coupon to use on a future booking if you find a lower price on an identical reservation from a U.S.-based website within 24 hours of your booking.
In addition to these features, you’ll sometimes have the opportunity to book their “Bargain Fares” — opaque bookings that won’t show all of the flight details until after the purchase is complete. These flights are can offer savings if you have flexibility in your travel schedule.
Book directly with the airline
Again, you probably won’t find drastically cheaper flights booking this way. But you could benefit from earning bonus miles if you’re using a co-branded card, for example. And if you’re worried and changing or canceling your flight you’ll likely have an easier time doing that if you booked directly with the airline.
Don’t forget about mistake fares! I’ve been able to fly in lie-flat business class to both Thailand and Seychelles thanks to mistake fares. And saved thousands of dollars in the process.
The best way to catch a mistake fare is to sign up for text, Twitter, or email alerts from your favorite travel blogs. Some sites even offer paid services that will search and track deals from your home airport for you.
What’s the best credit card to use for booking flights?
Which site you book with will have an impact on which card you should use. For example, if you have one of the best airline credit cards like the United℠ Explorer Card, you’ll only earn the 2 United Airlines miles per dollar spent on United Airlines purchases made directly with United. You can purchase a United flight through an OTA, but don’t expect to earn the bonus miles.
Instead, you could opt for a card that earns bonus miles for general travel purchases, as many of the top cards for travel do. Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, that earns 2 Chase Ultimate Rewards points on travel — regardless of where you’re purchasing the travel from. When a credit card says it offers a bonus on travel purchases, you can usually expect purchases made with airlines, hotels, OTAs, trains, taxis, rideshares and public transit to fall under the travel category.
Much like trying to find the cheapest flights, there’s no straight answer when it comes to the absolute best card for a purchase. Much of it depends on which cards you have along with your own travel and financial goals.
As you can see, there are a lot of options when it comes to choosing where to book a flight. Between OTAs, search engines, and booking directly with an airline, a lot of it comes down to personal preference. You should consider whether you’re just booking airfare or whether you want to book other travel at the same time and manage your reservations in one spot.
There’s no single website that will always you the cheapest ticket prices. You’ll usually find similar pricing on a majority of the OTAs — and that’s the case for booking direct with an airline, too.