Hotels and OTAs might be in an all-out war, but some travel experts think you can book with both, it just depends on when you’re looking to book.
Mark Blutstein, research analyse with travel research firm, Phocuswright, says older travellers, who are more likely to have clocked up a bunch of loyalty and reward points, will be more likely to book direct.
Meanwhile, the millennials – who’s trends we can barely keep up with – are just “looking for the best deal they can get”.
In some cases, such as where hotels or airlines offer discounts or perks for going direct, it can be better to skip the OTAs, but the OTAs can also be important tools for travellers when used properly.
According to MarketWatch, there are specific conditions that can make either one the better choice.
When to book directly
Bjorn Hanson, a professor with the New York University Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, told MarketWatch that there are typically three rates travellers choose from; a public rate with no discounts, a discounted rate for members of loyalty programs, and a discounted non-refundable rate.
“Almost always, one of those three will be as low or lower than the rate through an online travel agency for a similar arrangement,” Hanson said.
And because OTAs like Expedia are charging commissions for bookings they get, hotels aren’t putting their best deals on these search and comparison websites.
“There’s some price cutting we’re seeing in the marketplace to drive direct bookings,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Chief Executive of Expedia, per MarketWatch.
But low costs aren’t the only benefit, with perks like upgrades and free Wi-Fi often a plus of booking direct through hotels.
“Chances are you’ll be treated a little better [when booking direct], but sometimes you do need to call it out to them,” said Gautum Lulla, President of Travel Tripper, a hotel booking tech provider.
Again, booking direct can come in handy when things like flight delays or last minute cancellations crop up.
This is according to Scott Mackenzie, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Travel Codex, a website that covers news about travel loyalty programs, says MarketWatch.
“Whenever there’s a delay or cancellation, it makes it a lot easier to re-book the ticket,” Mackenzie said.
“There also may be more flexibility with the rules.”
But, MarketWatch also says OTAs can be used for “showrooming”; basically, giving travellers an idea of which hotel or airline has the best deal before they book direct.
But then again, some OTAs have also taken alternative roads to incorporate travel mishaps, like Booking.com’s ‘pay-when-you-stay’ model.
Priceline Group’s Head of Global Communications Leslie Cafferty told MarketWatch, “[This means] most bookings are cancellable (via one click on the site) up until close to the time of booking”.
And so comes the next stage…
When to use a third-party OTA
MarketWatch states a fairly obvious advantage OTAs have is that they are instant comparable search tools, and sometimes that’s exactly what travellers want.
“It’s pretty much the only way to compare prices,” Mackenzie told them.
But it doesn’t always mean the traveller will book through them, with even the US travel agent body saying agents should encourage their clients to “click around”.
OTAs also have other advantages in addition to their search and compare functions, and for some travellers who don’t have a favourite hotel or airline brand, the rewards and incentives offering via OTAs can be better than the ones offered by the brand itself.
As MarketWatch pointed out, rewards programs come in many forms, such as the Hotels.com policy that gives members a free night for every 10 they book through the site.
And, sometimes it actually is the cheapest option.
OTAs can often afford to actually apply their own discounts to help seal the deal.
“Because they have such high margins, sometimes they take a few dollars out of the rate they’re supposed to charge the consumer,” Lulla told MarketWatch.
And by bundling up a whole bunch of products like airfares, accommodation and car hire, in the one transaction, OTAs can help sweeten the offering and dip these prices even further.
Consumers ideally, however, should still shop around to do their own comparisons, says Mackenzie.
“The mistake people make is not searching anymore once they find something,” he added to MarketWatch.
“You’re going to get out of it what you put into it.”