There’s one piece of advice you’ll constantly hear from travel experts. Historically, it has been for very, very good reasons. If the prices are the same, or even similar, it’s best to book directly with the airline, as dealing with online travel agents for changes, refunds, or other issues can be a nightmare.
Sometimes, however, online travel agencies show flight availability that even airlines don’t. Look on the airline’s website, they offer you some flights at a certain price, but not others. When you love one of the others, you look elsewhere. Right?
I had a very specific flight need for a trip from Paris to New York, and Expedia became the best solution for that need. I booked, knowing that if things changed or flights were changed or cancelled, it could get messy.
And that day finally came. The airline canceled my connecting flight, discarding my entire itinerary. I felt I would soon face music for booking with an OTA, a punishment for not following my own advice over years of direct booking. What happened next surprised and delighted me.
I had a great Expedia chat
I logged into my online Expedia flight booking and looked up contact information. My initial reading was not impressive. Like many airlines, a popup was displayed indicating a longer than usual wait time to speak to a representative.
Here we go, I thought.
But right below it, Expedia reported that most issues can be resolved via chat, with a single click. I was 98% sure it would be a bot, and that the bot would make me even more nervous than I already was.
Instead, I was connected to a real life chat agent within 2 minutes. The person wasn’t necessarily a flight guru, but he quickly read through the flexibility policy offered by the airline and was presented with a summary of alternative options. They didn’t need to be.
I helped guide them through my preferred alternate flights and within 5 minutes the tickets were reissued to my liking. Sure, you could have had a better time selecting alternative flights online directly with the airline, but not necessarily.
I wanted to make a more comprehensive change that might not have been offered automatically by an airline IT system for rebooking. Or, in the case of many airlines, they may not have an online rebooking option for international tickets.
The point is– On this booking, I felt like the only reason I normally don’t want to book with Expedia was not a reason do not book I had an excellent customer service experience that was equal to or on par with most airline rebooking options and in some cases better.
Are OTAs learning to win?
Make no mistake, online travel agencies are largely successful. Their businesses are almost all up. They don’t own hotels or planes, they just fill the rooms and seats, earning nice commissions in the process. OTAs are already winning.
But for discerning travelers, many of whom are high-margin customers, direct booking has always been the way to go. As hotels shoot themselves up with loyalty cutbacks and airlines struggle to hire enough people to provide good customer service, Expedia may be gaining some important ground.
If they eliminate the pain points of booking with them, instead of booking directly, they will slowly be able to get more business from more apprehensive customers.
You could also argue that the improved travel booking experiences of major credit card companies have driven OTAs to be better. If that starts to happen, airlines may be forced to go the hotels route and offer better benefits or better customer service to book directly.
There is plenty of room for airlines and OTAs to grow in the customer experience arena, and this experience was a positive sign of things to come. The only side I’m on is customers getting better experiences. However we get there, it’s a good result.
What has been your best or worst travel experience as a customer in the last few months?