Deep Dive: "Flight Deal" Websites: When To Book, When To Avoid.
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Part One: Domestic Flights
This is the first of a two-part article; Part Two covers international flights. This won't be the most glamourous travel article you'll read this year, but it’s one of the most common questions I see on social media: “Help! I booked a cheap flight on a travel website, and now (my flight got cancelled / I need to change dates / I didn’t realize I’d have an overnight in Winnipeg), what now?"
So, heading into a season of Black Friday sales and promotions for tropical winter vacations, today we’re going to unpack the perks and perils of booking with third-party travel websites.
There are dozens of these sites, from established veterans like Expedia and Travelocity all the way down to newcomers who went into business while I was writing this article. They all promise to save you money on your flights, but anytime someone tells me they can sell me a product for less money than the people who make the product, I’m skeptical.
If you’re smart about it, these sites can save you a bit of money, but it’s easy to get into expensive trouble if you don’t read the fine print. Today, we'll dig into how to tell a good "cheap flight" deal from a bad one.
There’s lots to cover here, and I don't want to overload you with details, so start with these three basics:
If you see a good price on a third-party website, always check whether you can get the same price booking direct with the airline instead.
If a third party is selling airfare for less than the actual airline charges, read the terms and conditions *really* carefully. Know what you’re getting, and assume anything not specifically listed isn't included. If it seems too good to be true, there’s going to be a reason why.
Consider how much you’d need to save, to make it worthwhile having to go through a third party if you need to change or rebook. This number will be different for each person, and the right answer is whichever one works best for you.
I said three points, but no, seriously, you really have to read the fine print.
Before we go any further - I don’t have a bone to pick with any one of these websites, but there's WAY too many of them to review one-by-one, so any feature I discuss here is something I've seen across multiple third-party travel-resale websites, and I'm just using the example to illustrate industry trends.
Any site used as an example in this article got picked solely because it was offering the cheapest flight I could find for my sample dates and routes.
Right. Let's get started!
Why bother booking direct? It’s all the same flights in the end, right?
The biggest difference between booking direct with an airline, or via a third-party website, is who you’ll deal with if something goes wrong.
In a not-yet-post-COVID world, flights are getting re-scheduled or cancelled on a regular basis, and when that happens, you’re nearly always going to have a simpler, smoother experience getting rebooked or refunded if you can deal directly with the airline. Worse, some third-party websites will charge you a call-center fee just to talk to a human when rebooking.
After that, the difference between booking direct or through a third party all comes down to fine print. Every third-party website has a different set of rules and conditions, and you’ve got to be able to spot the expensive details before you hand over your credit card.
However, if your travel needs are *really* simple, and you're certain your plans will never change once you've booked, these websites can absolutely shave a few dollars off your trip, so we’ll cover that too.
Let’s get into some examples; I picked all the flights below to depart about a month from now, round-trip economy, for a week. For each case, I picked the cheapest option I could buy from any one airline, then looked for the same flights from a re-seller, and then looked for the absolute lowest price I could find from a third-party website.
Example 1: Vancouver-Toronto round-trip
$235 direct, $235 with third-party websites.
For domestic travel, third-party sites can rarely beat booking direct, but these examples illustrate an important point: third-partty sites don’t always tell you everything, and some even want to charge extra fees for things the airline will just give you for free.
Vancouver-Toronto is one of Canada’s highest-volume routes, so I often use it as an example. Most of the time, Westjet and Air Canada’s fares will be nearly identical, and that’s true here, when we see a round-trip with direct flights come in at $234.71 for a Standard fare.
When you choose a flight, Air Canada (and most airlines in the world) will offer you a choice between different "fare types" - in this case Standard, Flex and Comfort - each of which offers different features like seat selection and checked bags, and clicking each fare type will give you a detailed breakdown of exactly what's included, and what you'll pay for extras.
Booking with a third-party website - in this case, Expedia - comes in at an identical $234.71 (they round up in the thumbnail to make it more readable, but the end price is identical). In my experience it's rare but not unheard-of for third-party sites to sell domestic Canadian flights cheaper than the airline itself.
Unlike many third-party sites that only show the cheapest flight possible, Expedia includes options for different fare types, in this case Air Canada's Standard, Flex and Comfort fares. Just like booking direct, Expedia gives you the details needed to make an informed decision, and I give them solid marks for it.
There’s no price advantage here, though, so there's zero advantage to booking through Expedia, and if your flight is cancelled or rescheduled, you'll have to go through an extra layer of customer service to get rebooked, so this round lands squarely in the "book direct" side.
Next, we'll dig into the details of booking the cheapest fare I could find.
Example 2: that same Vancouver-Toronto round-trip, but with the cheapest airline possible.
$193 round-trip through FlyFar
First off, a confession: these aren’t the absolute *cheapest* flights available; to get those, I would have to be okay with including “nearby airports”, like a $107 flight to Toronto from Abbotsford, 80 kilometres away from Vancouver Airport and 70 km from downtown Vancouver, or a $163 flight from Vancouver to Kitchener/Waterloo, 110 km from downtown Toronto.
These options can be good, if that puts you closer to where you’re trying to go, but I’m trying to compare apples to apples here, so we’ll stick to Vancouver-Toronto.
So, I go to Kayak.com, which searches multiple we’re looking at a $193 round-trip with Flair Airlines, through FlyFar.com. To get this price, you’ll need to take a red-eye flight to Toronto, leaving at 11 PM and landing just after sunrise; there’s only the one flight a day, but if those flight times work for you then that's really no obstacle at all.
Second, if you want to check a bag, FlyFar charges $95 *each way* for the privilege. That’s almost as much as the whole plane ticket cost in the first place. Keep that $95 in mind, we'll come back to it later.
Lots of people are happy packing light and just flying with a carry-on; I'm one of them! However, this ticket doesn’t include carry-on either, just a “personal item” the size of a purse or laptop bag, so you'll be flying with just the clothes on your back. Okay, fine, maybe a change of socks.
I tried to look up the cost of a carry-on bag for this ticket, but after a booking page that wanted to sell me all kinds of add-on services and several different kinds of insurance, this cost was never listed. I guess you’ll find out when you get to the airport, right?
Just to be sure, I went to Flair’s website and checked; a carry-on would add $51.45 each way if purchased in advance, but since FlyFar didn’t warn us about that, you’re probably going to get to the airport and find out you’ve got to pay the $61.95 “at the airport” fee.
So, for the flight, with no seat selection, carry-on not included, and one checked bag each way, you’re now looking at a total cost of $382.98, nearly double the original quoted price.
If you don't check a bag, but pay the advance carry-on fee FlyFar never mentioned, then your $193 red-eye flight will only cost you $295.96, or about fifty bucks more than Air Canada's "more expensive" fare.
But wait... there's more!
Here's a “feature” of many third-party travel websites that just drives me crazy; they want to sell you better customer service for a fee. Or, one suspects, this really means they’re going to leave you on hold for hours *unless* you pay this fee.
Looking in detail at this feature as offered by FlyFar, if you don’t give them at least an extra $42, then you’ll pay $30 every time you need to change anything about your flight – and to quote them directly, “this fee will also be charged if you need additional help after a schedule change by the airline”.
Are you freaking kidding me?
I'm not saying a middleman never adds value, but...
Here’s the thing: those exact same flights are available directly from Flair Airlines for the same $193 base price that FlyFar offers, but Flair offers money-saving options the third-party website doesn’t.
Remember that $95-each-way fee to check a bag, that didn’t include carry-on? Flair will sell you a ‘value bundle’ for $87.47 that includes a carry-on *and* a checked bag. FlyFar charges $28 each way for “an aisle or window” seat, but won’t let you pick where you want to sit, while Flair lets you pick off the seat map with plenty of aisle and window seats at $21 each way.
In other words, FlyFar is charging you more money for less service. On seats, on bags, on phone calls...
So, if we book direct with Flair, that round-trip flight with one checked bag is down to $386.34.
Here’s the thing, though: booking direct with Westjet or Air Canada, carry-on is included, and adding a checked bag is only $63 round-trip, so their “more expensive” $235 airfare plus checked bags only comes to $298 altogether. Even if you fly Flair and only take a carry-on, you’re paying $295 for what Westjet or Air Canada would have sold you for $235.
Some of this is down to third-party sites like FlyFar hoping you won't notice their nickel-and-dime fees until after you've hit "Purchase", and some of it's down to "low-cost-carrier" airlines like Flair doing the same thing with their baggage fees, but it's when you put the two together in combination that things can really get out of control in a hurry.
My mantra all over this site is “do the math, do the math”, and stuff like this is why I never stop saying it. From time to time, you’re absolutely going to find a situation where the 'cheapest 'fare really does cost less, but until you’ve put all the pieces together, it’s easy to get sucked in by a low base fare and still end up paying more than you would have if you'd booked a "higher price" from a bigger airline.
We'll continue this discussion in the next episode, looking at international flights. Many of the same factors apply, but there's more room for third-party websites to deliver actual savings, as well as more room for careless booking to get costly and difficult in a hurry.