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13 Things You Didn’t Know About Online Travel Sites

Updated: Aug. 03, 2023

Before planning a trip at your go-to travel site, make sure you get the best deals with these expert tips.

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They know who’s a Mac and who’s a PC—and who’s going to spend more

In 2012, Orbitz tracked people’s online activities to test out a little experiment: Do Mac users spend more on travel than PC users? Turns out that on average, Mac users lay out $20 to $30 more per night on hotels and go for more stars, according to the Wall Street Journal. As a result, the online travel site shows these users different, more expensive travel options first. To avoid inadvertently paying more, sort results by price. Here are 11 more secrets travel booking companies won’t ever tell you.

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Their software doesn’t always hook up to the hotel’s system

The middleman’s software isn’t immune to system errors, so always call the hotel or airline to make sure your booking was processed. And a guaranteed reservation is almost impossible to come by—but the risk of finding out your plane or hotel is overbooked and getting bumped to another flight or hotel increases with third-party providers. “If someone has to be bumped due to an oversold situation, it will be customers who booked with an OTA,” says Hilary Stockton, CEO of luxury travel company, TravelSort. “They are deemed to be mere price shoppers and not loyal to the brand.” Make sure you know your passenger rights if your flight has been overbooked.

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Don’t be fooled by packages: Often, they’re low-end items grouped together

Ever notice how travel sites recommend one-stop shopping, like a hotel, rental car, and tour package all in one click? These deals usually feature travel that no one wants, like flights with multiple layovers. Check the fine print to be sure you’re actually getting a good deal with the types of travel options that you want. Used to travel mess-ups and mistakes? These travel cartoons will help you find the funny in everything.

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If you’re trying to save on travel agent fees, you might be spending more with online DIY

According to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the average service fee for booking airline tickets was around $36. Yet that can outweigh $100 or more in straight savings, as well as added benefits (like upgrades and better flights) you can get from a travel agent. The New York Times’ frugal traveler did a series of test runs, finding the best available flights online and comparing that to what a travel agent could do. The results: usually, the travel agent came in cheaper—fees included. “Well established tour operators and agents generally have confidential, contracted rates with airlines,” says Julia Carter, director of Craft Travel. “This means that, in many cases, they are not even charging fees, but rather have commissionable airfare pricing from the airline.” These travel agents share their best tricks and tips for traveling on a budget.

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Young woman in international airport looking at the flight information board, checking her flight
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Last-minute travel isn’t the same deal it used to be

At the advent of the online travel site boom, last minute was the time to book—cheap flights! Cheap hotels! Getaway this weekend! But the buy-and-fly magic has ceased to exist due to industry consolidation among airlines and flight routes, which is why many planes are flying with more passengers. Now your sweet spot is anywhere from three weeks to three and a half months before departure for U.S. domestic flights, according to a CheapAir.com study. But there are some exceptions! Taj Bates, founder of The YOLO Guide to Travel, says you may be able to snag a last minute hotel deal on an OTA a week or less in advance during off-season and shoulder season, which could save you anywhere from $100 to $300. Experts swear by these travel pillows. 

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A young man and a woman came to the travel agency. They want to go on a trip during their holidays. The agent gives them tickets.

You aren’t likely to build airline or hotel loyalty

Don’t book online if you want to rack up those miles or points—at most, you’ll get the minimum, and your booking won’t make you eligible for any special offers, like double points on weekend stays. Work directly with a tour company or travel agent to build up the loyalty points that will get you upgrades and priority rewards. Don’t miss these 13 things airlines don’t want you to know.

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Travel agents often can share exclusive perks

Online booking sites are all about dates, rates, and space, meaning their goal is to put heads in beds, says Misty Ewing at Virtuoso luxury travel network. But for the same price, an agent might have connections and special access. “For example, when traveling in Italy, you can take a cooking class with a local resident in her home—a level of authenticity not provided by the Internet,” she says.

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Corporate travel needs are probably better done in person or on the phone

Planning a small business trip can become a logistical mess, and online travel sites offer little help. But specialty business travel agencies can help their clients with corporate events, meetings, and special services that online travel sites don’t deal with—and are often able to negotiate better rates with airlines and hotels. “For a crucial meeting or event, you want a dedicated point of contact who is responsive and can recommend the right airline, hotel, and venue space for your business travel,” says Stockton.

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Online, you might not see every option

No travel site will show you options from every airline—and no one includes budget-friendly picks like Southwest or Ryanair. “Airlines are trying to make price comparison harder and therefore restricting the options available on online travel agents,” says Henry Gilroy from Berridale Travel, a luxury travel agency. But travel sites leave out even more options for lodging, listing big names and omitting comfy little inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and rentals from places like HomeAway.

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Once your trip is purchased, you’re on your own

All trips, no matter how well planned, are vulnerable to canceled flights, subpar hotel rooms, or torrential weather. An online travel agency can’t provide assistance the same way an agent can. Basically, when you arrive at the airport or hotel, you’re just another client who booked at the lowest rate. “You can’t VIP yourself,” says Ewing.

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Online deal sites can’t give first-hand experience

A website can’t tell you the exact location of the room, the view, the size, or whether or not the room needs renovation. You’ll have to do more research on your own or risk getting stuck in the dimly lit room in the back of the building with a picture-perfect view of the A/C shaft.

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They also aren’t as current as an agent…

An online travel site often isn’t going to share if construction is happening in the hotel or somewhere nearby. Researching on other sites might turn up this information, but an agent is likely to be the best resource for knowing what’s going on. Don’t miss these 10 popular travel tips that are no longer true.

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…or know who else will be staying there.

Planning a romantic getaway for two? That won’t matter to a group of high schoolers on their senior trip at the same hotel. An online travel agent can’t tell you when a large group is in-house, making it uncomfortable for the few guests who aren’t in the group. Next, be sure to check out these 21 hotel secrets that will help you when booking your next room.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest