Frontier Airlines caused a stir recently when it announced that travelers who do not book directly with the airline will pay higher fees, receive half as many frequent flier miles and will not be allowed to select a seat in advance of check-in. Whether cutting out the middleman is consumer-friendly is a matter of debate. But the news got me thinking: Should travelers assume that the best deals always come from online — even offline — travel agencies?
While agencies certainly turn up great vacation packages and make comparison shopping easy, the best deals I’ve found lately are the result of booking directly with a hotel or airline. In the past week alone I got a steal on a luxury hotel in Miami by using a discount code offered by the hotel that popped up in a Google search. And I reserved a flight to San Francisco from New York for less than $150 during a one-day sale that JetBlue announced on Twitter. The fares, the airline noted, were “not available on Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia or Priceline."
Direct bookings may result in higher profits for hotels and airlines, but there are benefits for consumers, too. With that in mind, here are three outdated myths about booking direct.
You can’t save money. When price-shopping for a hotel, keep in mind that many chains now promise that their rates are the same or better than those found anywhere else. For instance, Starwood Hotels and Resorts — the parent company of brands including St. Regis, W, Westin, Le Meridien, Sheraton and Four Points — offers a “best rate guarantee."
“You are guaranteed that you will not find a better rate on any other channel," said Clay Cowan, vice president of global digital for Starwood. (And if you do, Starwood will honor the lower rate plus give you an additional 10 percent discount or 2,000 Starpoints.)
A recent search for a standard room with a king bed at Le Parker Meridien in Manhattan in October turned up a Saturday night rate of $403.99 (taxes included) on Travel- ocity.com. The same room type on the same night on Starwoodhotels.com was $323.65.
More hotels are following suit. Last year, InterContinental Hotels Group, which includes Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts and Holiday Inn, introduced a “best price guarantee" for anyone booking on IHG.com and its other brand websites. And this year, Wyndham Hotel Group — which includes brands like Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8, Howard Johnson and Travelodge — introduced a website for all of its brands, which, according to the company, is “designed to recapture business by driving more bookings through the company’s own channels." The site guarantees rates and offers tools to sort results by categories like price and amenities.
Airlines are making similar claims. A spokeswoman for JetBlue said that its website is its preferred booking option and that it has a best-fare guarantee. Delta Air Lines also has a best-fare guarantee. If travelers buy a ticket on Delta.com and then find a fare for the same itinerary that is at least $10 lower on another site, Delta will refund the difference — and provide a $100 Delta travel voucher. Alternatively, travelers can simply accept a refund. Other airlines, including American and United, have also made low-fare pledges. In addition to price guarantees, companies are using social media to dangle exclusive deals.
On Tuesdays JetBlue offers “Cheeps," limited-time Twitter deals on last-minute flights, including a recent flight from Boston to New Orleans that was just $110. In the past few weeks, Virgin America gave the first 1,000 passengers who shared an in-flight Instagram photograph of themselves on Twitter a code for 30 percent off their next flight.
Hilton Worldwide gave 500 Hilton HHonors points to Facebook and Twitter followers who liked and shared a promotional video for Hampton Hotels.
Not a fan of Twitter? You don’t have to have an account to take advantage of a deal. Just as I was about to click the “reserve" button on my Miami hotel, I did a quick Google search for three terms: the hotel name, the word “code" and the word “Twitter." Poof! A tweet from the hotel’s feed appeared with a discount code that knocked almost $100 off the nightly rate.
The Four Seasons, which said it offers “price parity" wherever its rooms are sold but does not offer special rates for direct bookings, said travelers who use its social media pages can still win gift cards that can be redeemed for discounted or free rooms.
Your room or plane seat will be the same whether or not you book direct.
Executives at hotels and airlines said they can deliver a more personalized experience when travelers book directly. That means guests may have a better chance of getting the bed or room type they want. Passengers who book directly with airlines can select a particular seat or buy priority boarding. Meanwhile, a site like Expedia allows you to request seats, but as the site notes when you choose a seat: “We will share your seating requests with the airlines, but we cannot guarantee your request will be honored." There is no option for add-ons like priority boarding or more-legroom seats either.
Robert Simon, director of interactive marketing at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, said that when booking hotel rooms with his family he requests things like adjoining rooms, a high floor, even bath salts for his daughters. “None of that is going to happen at an online travel agency," he said. (Indeed, while you can make some requests, the fine print on sites like Travelocity says to “contact the hotel directly if you have a specific need.")
Another thing that’s not going to happen with a third-party site? Racking up loyalty points.
Starwood’s websites are the only sites where travelers can earn Starpoints for bookings and where Starwood Preferred Guest members can receive special offers, according to the company. At InterContinental, booking directly is the only way to earn points in its Priority Club Rewards program.
Some airlines even reward travelers for direct booking. JetBlue, for one, gives double TrueBlue points for every booking made on its website, including points on its vacation packages.
It’s easier to change plans with a travel agency.
When plans change, it’s nice to be able to make a single phone call to adjust all your flight, car and hotel reservations — a perk of using a travel agency. But booking directly can spare you cancellation fees when it comes to the best hotel deals, which are often nonrefundable. Hotels typically offer a broader range of flexible rates. “Cancellation polices can be much easier and way more amenable to consumers," said Simon of Four Seasons.
For instance, a recent search on Travelocity.com for a traditional room with a king bed at the Westin Austin at The Domain on a Saturday night in October pulled up a rate of $292.94 (including taxes). That special advance purchase rate was nonrefundable and could not be changed or canceled. For about $16 more, Fourseasons.com had the same room on the same night for a “flexible rate" of $309.35. No deposit was required, and there was no penalty for changes or cancellations until the day of check- in.
Peace of mind for $16? If I had a spare $293.35 to spend on a hotel room, I’d book it.