Not biased, not pursuing any interest of my own and simply wanting to guide (from my past experience) other travellers to travel smarter, I would say that the answer is not black and white.
Many of you travellers believe, that the booking you secure through an online travel agency (otherwise known as OTAs and those are the likes of Agoda.com, Booking.com, etc.) get you the best deal in the market, but is that really true?
Yes, very often, if you don’t know how to engage with hoteliers or do not want to.
Having worked myself in hotels for many years, I will share with you my very personal pros and cons for booking directly with hotels and the online travel agencies, so you can decide what works best for you.
Here’s an infographic to summarize the overview before I proceed to tell stories that you might not know about:
Hotels vs OTAs
Pros of booking with an online travel agency
1. You save money
Have you noticed how competitive the rates are when you book your hotel through an online travel agency (OTA)?
Online travel agency rates are very competitive, and if a hotel does not want to run into trouble with an OTA partner they are contracted with, they will most likely not offer lower rates on their own websites, in order not to undercut the OTA.
All the hotels I know of (and depending on location and hotel type) heavily rely on OTA bookings these days, because of changing consumer behavior and more and more internet savvy consumers (yes, YOU who are reading this post) and great visibility of the OTA on the web.
When hotels want to display lower rates on their own website, OTAs will be like
Try and google ‘hotel in Bangkok’, or any other destination. Which companies rank first on the google page? Nearly always the OTA and not an individual hotel or hotel group, right?
I yet have to encounter a hotel that ranks higher in the google search than an OTA and is therefore easier to be found.
Millions of people find a hotel via the OTA first and also often book through them. One can therefore say that OTAs have a certain power over hotels, because hotels still rely on the bookings coming through the OTA.
Hotels simply do not have the tools and means to overtake the OTA in the google ranking and getting all the bookings themselves.
What does this mean for you?
Knowing of the power of the OTA, especially in low seasons, or to promote last minute deals, hotels often give OTAs very low rates to fill up the space. Remember also to book early, because most hotels have “Early bird” promotions and offer them to the OTAs too. A 20-30% discount depending on how long in advance you book is not uncommon.
So that’s why the rates displayed on OTA sites are usually very low. And who will be happy? YOU of course!
The OTA are much more efficient in filling up empty space than many of the hotels themselves because they have greater reach.
2. You save time
It is very convenient, fast (you can book 24/7) and safe to book via an online travel agency and I must admit that I use them regularly too. Why?
You see all properties on one website and you can easily compare rates, locations, categories of hotels, etc.
You can instantly check other customer reviews about the hotel you are interested in on the OTA (I personally still check those reviews on TripAdvisor too, because I find that more people post on TripAdvisor than on the OTA websites).
The online travel agencies are basically a one-stop shop for most of the information you need to choose and book a hotel. I also like that you can find hotels you have previously not heard of and would otherwise have never checked out.
The OTAs are a one-stop shop for everything
3. You get to enjoy their loyalty program worldwide
Large online travel agencies have rewards programs, where you can accumulate points to use for future bookings.
So in addition to booking your hotel rooms at often very competitive rates, you get rewarded with points on top of it. Not bad right?
You might say that many hotel groups also have their reward programs, which is absolutely correct.
However, with the OTA, you are not tied down with a particular brand. Regardless of which eligible hotel in the world you make your booking with through the OTA, you will be rewarded with points, thus it gives you increased earning potential.
You can rack up and redeem points more quickly than you would through a hotel program.
I personally also think that the OTA loyalty programs are very easy to understand while the hotel programs are more complex (although I must say that the perks you get on the big hotel chain reward programs are a lot more about personalized experiences for you as guests).
However, like with hotel reward programs or any other companies’ loyalty programs, there are terms and conditions attached to it, and I would advise you to read them carefully, to spare yourself any disappointment.
Happy that you can even earn reward points on a last minute promotion rate? Read the fine print!
4. You can book your hotel easily
Most of the online travel agencies websites are user- and mobile-friendly.
You can book “on the go” and from wherever you are – the check-out process is seamless and you get instant confirmation.
I think one can also say that booking via an OTA is very safe. I have booked via the OTA more often than I can think of and never had any misuse of my credit card or wrong charges. I am sure some people will come forward now, claiming “You are wrong, me, me, I had issues”, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, overall the OTAs are very safe!
OTA websites are easy to use
Image by Alamy
Pros of booking directly with a hotel
1. Hotels will give you more value
All the hotels I know of prefer direct bookings over OTA bookings. Why?
Hotels have to pay OTAs commissions for each booking, and believe me, we are not talking about peanuts here. OTAs know of their power and can demand high commissions and hotels grind their teeth and have to pay if they do not want to see their properties half empty, especially in locations where supply exceeds demand.
In fact, Bali is now such a destination.
So, what can hotels do to get more direct bookings if they do not want to undercut the rates of the OTA (although I am pretty sure some are bullish enough to do so, especially if the hotel group is big enough to stand more or less on its own feet) and if they do not have the power to get their Google rankings up for people to find them easily online?
Well, they can offer “added value” to their guests who book directly with the hotel, because offering a free spa treatment, an airport transfer or free internet access costs them still a lot less than paying the OTAs those high commissions.
Free gifts in room?
Many times you see complimentary “value added perks” already on the hotels’ websites as part of a package, so here you already get a better deal than booking through the OTA (not in terms of rates, as those are more or less the same, but you get free perks).
You just need to make the effort to go through all the offers.
My advice is, approach the hotels, say you want to book directly with them, but what is the incentive for you to do so?
Even better, why don’t you just say, “I book directly with you, but may I have a free late check-out or early check-in, a free massage, a free airport transfer or one soft drink with each meal, etc.?
Be reasonable, not greedy and be friendly in your approach, do not demand, ask politely. Also keep in mind, that hotels prefer to give added value benefits than a rate reduction.
If you would have approached me that way, I would have ALWAYS shown a commercial gesture (unless you asked me for a free ocean view room upgrade in Bali during peak season) and hopefully created a long term relationship with you.
Remember, don’t ask like this
If with this approach, you still do not manage to get any added value for booking directly, there could be 2 reasons:
Reason 1 – the hotel is doing so well and is always fully booked and does not need guests who start to negotiate. (good for them, but hands up hoteliers, how many of you can say they are full all the time?)
Reason 2 – whoever is dealing with your request cannot be bothered, is too busy to personalize each request or is not empowered to make decisions. That’s why you should go directly to the decision makers (Sales Manager or the Reservation Manager) if you want to save time negotiating.
Express clearly what you want and do not say “What can you give me if I book directly with you”. You know what you want, so say it.
2. If things go wrong, you can deal directly with the hotel
All professional hotels want happy customers and they will help you, especially if you are right with your complaint.
Speak to the Management (politely please even if you are boiling with anger) and express what you want.
A passionate hotelier will find a solution and it is in his power to help you straight away. The hotel wants to see you leaving happy and coming back.
Don’t make the hoteliers guess what they should offer you as a compensation – speak up if the free room upgrade or the 90-minute massage will make up for the trouble you have been through – It saves you and the hotel a lot of time.
Gif via BuzzFeed
Don’t simply keep your unhappiness to yourself, and go home to complain about the holiday.
There are always ways to sort out a challenge, so give the hotels a chance to make up for their mistakes while you are still staying there. You will just have an unhappy holiday if you wait until you get back home and trying to figure out ways on how to seek revenge (often without success).
3. Hotels will be able to make your dreams come true and create experiences you will cherish for a long time
You want to surprise your wife with an amazing honeymoon suite romantic set up when you arrive at the hotel?
You want the limousine with chilled champagne inside, waiting for you at the airport?
You want a dinner for two at sunset in the rice fields in Ubud?
You want an elephant as the ultimate ring bearer at your beach wedding ?
Do you think a hotel can make all these become reality? You bet, it can! Just book and ask.
Maybe not this kind of VIP wake up call
Gif via thathotel tumblr
During my time working in Kuwait many years ago, I met a guest who wanted to buy two of the beautiful Japanese hand-made mugs we served the tea in, at the very upscale Japanese restaurant. The restaurant was located at the hotel, but was not managed by the hotel and the restaurant staff told the guest that they could not sell the mugs, because they only had limited stock and they came from Japan.
The guest accepted this explanation and just casually mentioned it to me, because I was working in the Executive Lounge and for some reason, staff working there were always the “harbor” for guests to pour their hearts out to. And although the guest did not ask for my help, I made it my mission to get my hands on those mugs as a surprise for him.
I went to the restaurant and coincidentally met in that evening the owner of the restaurant, who came from Japan on a visit. I approached him and told him that I MUST find a way to purchase the mugs for the guests. I guess my persistence left an impression, and he probably just wanted to get rid of me and be left in peace, so he eventually promised to bring two mugs with him when he came from Japan next time.
He kept his promise, and when the same guest (he was a regular guest) came by again just in time, the mugs arrived and we placed them as a surprise in his room, together with his favorite tea.
Those are the things you do, when you create relationships with people and not machines. I am sure every hotel of a certain reputation has similar or even more extraordinary customer service stories to share.
4. Hotels provide special packages not found on the OTA
Remember the OTAs are rate driven and not value driven, so the hotels can make a difference to you by offering some interesting packages that cater to all sorts of guests – like families, those interested in spa and wellness, romantic getaways, friends travelling together escapes, multi-generational family travel, etc.
If you are interested in those kind of packages or want to be in the loop for their specials, events and contests, subscribe to their newsletter and regularly check their facebook page for the latest news, especially if you have an affinity with a certain hotel or hotel brand.
Woof, booked the pet 7 nights wellness & detox experience, AMAZING!
Cons for booking with an online travel agency
1. You can’t get a personalized service
You are dealing with a machine, which will not guide you in a personable way to find a hotel which suits your needs best.
You have to get all the information yourself and if you don’t find the information you want on the OTA, so sorry, bad luck for you. You have to rely on the information that is featured on their websites and hope that you made the right choice.
How much did you appreciate when a person gave you a personal recommendation, knows you well and guides you in the right direction?
An OTA will not do that – you are on your own.
Remember, you are dealing with robots
2. No one to help you immediately
Have you ever booked through an OTA and ran into a problem at the hotel?
Although that problem was not caused by an OTA, you believed you could claim your money back (hotel did not meet your expectations, location too remote, room too small, etc.) or change to another hotel.
In the process, did you try to get instant help from your online travel agency to sort out the issue and wasted hours (and probably money for the phone calls) to find a solution?
If you answered those questions with ‘yes’, you probably understand how frustrating it can be not to have a personal contact person to speak to.
Anything can go wrong
An OTA can do very little without the help of the hotelier and his goodwill. Once you have paid the OTA and there is a no refund clause in the terms and conditions, there is nothing an OTA can do to get your money back (unless it is a really serious case). It all lies in the hands of the hotel and they will often refer you back to the OTA first, to explain what happened, because you booked your stay through this channel.
I cannot count the number of times when guests did not know who to contact at the OTA (remember, you booked via a machine and not a person), could not reach them immediately, got frustrated and angry for not having a person they could call and talk to, and started to shout at the hotel staff.
In most cases, the hotel staff would contact their counterparts at the OTA to get through to the right person, but even that takes time.
At night, you will most likely not be able to reach the sales person at the hotel either, to get the information about the OTA contact person.
Guests also very often ask for a monetary refund from the hotel directly if they are unhappy, which will not happen (or at least not that I know of) if you book through an OTA, because you paid the OTA and not the hotel, so all claims have to be made through the OTA.
Can somebody hear me, I need help, I am your customer
3. You will be one of the first to move out if the hotel is overbooked
Yes, right you, who booked via the online travel agency (not only those, but very often) and whom the hotel has just no personal relationship with yet.
And if you paid a low rate as well, then you can be very sure that the hotel will try to move you first.
But even if you paid a higher rate than a loyal customer who books the hotel directly, from my experience, the OTA customers will be the first to be moved.
Do you think a hotel will outbook a guest who has made his booking directly, who has created a personal relationship with the hotel, communicated his preferences, etc?
Only if there is no other choice, but most likely not.
When the hotel is overbooked, you will be like
Gif via reactiongifs
You might ask, where will they send you to if the hotel is overbooked? To another hotel of similar or higher standard, and it is up to the hotel to find this other hotel for you (you will of course not pay for the other hotel as well, this room rate will be absorbed by the hotel that you originally booked).
If the hotelier is not sending you to a hotel of the same standard or higher, then it is your right to make a strong point and do not move away from the lobby until the issue is sorted. Do not give in, because it is your right.
I had this happen to me twice, and in both cases I was sent to a property which was of even higher category, so I surely did not make a fuss. And nowadays I tend to think “Please, please, overbook the hotel and send me away” LOL. But do not expect the higher category, as they are not obliged to book it (many times they do, because similar category hotels are full, especially in high season or high demand periods) , but thank your lucky stars if you get it.
Most of the time, the hotels will not be overbooked for your entire stay, but only for one or two days. They will also be likely to make you come back to your initial hotel.
Many will display a commercial gesture for the inconvenience and offer you a little “something”, like a free dinner, spa treatment, etc.
Depending on the purpose of your stay (I am sure, a couple on honeymoon, who’s looking forward to their special stay, might not be happy arriving at the hotel to find out that their lovely ocean view room is overbooked), sometimes an overbooking situation is a blessing in disguise, so listen to the hotel before you blow a fuse when they announce that they need to send you to another hotel (although strictly speaking it’s not right for them to do it, but what is right in the business world of today?).
You may now ask, why do hotels overbook their hotels?
For the same reason as airline companies do – they always expect guests not to turn up, and from experience, this happens very, very often, but all depends on the hotel and location.
Corporate city hotels do overbook more than resorts, because it is more likely that a corporate guest does not turn up than a tourist who booked his well-planned annual holiday.
4. You rely on the goodwill of the hotel if you made a mistake in the booking process
The booking process on the OTA is very safe and you get the chance to verify all the booking details before hitting the submit button, but nevertheless, I have seen more than once that guests made a mistake, booked a wrong category, mixed up the currency, etc. and cried down the hotel phone.
Who will help you?
The online travel agency has done nothing wrong, as you made the mistake, so they are not obliged to refund any money at all. The best they can do is to contact the hotel and hope they are understanding enough to waive the charges.
The moment you realize you made a huge mistake
5. An online travel agency will never offer you an experience – they are mostly rate driven.
You want to organize a surprise for your loved one for his/her birthday, propose to your girlfriend in the most memorable way, organize a family getaway, or travel with your aging parents to a long haul destination you have never been to?
In my opinion, those are definitely not the occasions you want to rely on an OTA for an amazing experience.
You cheapskate, you want me to organise our Bali beach wedding alone, because all you care about is saving money Cons for booking directly with the hotels
1. Possible delays in replies to your enquiries or booking requests
Unless you book via a hotel’s website, you may not get answers and confirmations instantly (luxury hotels have a policy of answering within 24 hours or even less, but depending on which part of the world the hotel is situated at, I would not always count on that and yes, please be patient with Bali too, where the sense of time is generally ‘stretched’ if you get what I mean).
Waiting for things in Bali requires lots of patience.
2. Your reservation may be missing or keyed in wrongly
Sometimes you might also come across young and inexperienced staff (that is another dilemma of the hospitality industry, more hotels want to cut costs and with low wages, they can’t get the most experienced staff), and you may not get the most personalized offer to suit your needs, nor the help of trained hotel reservation staff to make common-sense decisions.
When you email the hotel, you might also encounter cultural differences (a promise “I send you an answer as quickly as possible” may not mean the same “quickly” in all parts of the world), language barriers and hotel-versus-client misunderstandings (airport pick-ups are often a classic story for a mess up).
“I have asked for an airport pick up when I booked your hotel and guess what, there was NOBODY waiting for us!”
I have also seen it more than once, that Reservation staff was too busy entering the reservation immediately in the system and later forgot about it.
The guest arrived, but no reservation could be found and Front Office staff have to deal with an understandably angry guest upon check-in.
Lack of communication between departments is also very common. Another scenario is this – staff not entering all relevant information into the reservation system before the guest arrives, and again the poor Front Office team has to take the blame and you have to wait for things to be sorted out so you can finally get to your room.
The paper with the booking dates of the guest must be here somewhere
3. You may risk your credit card details being stolen
This point is probably not so relevant for the branded hotel chains, so those of you who book with well-known hotel chains (through their website), rest assured that your credit card numbers will be safe when you book online (but of course I am not saying your card isn’t safe with lesser-known hotels).
However, many smaller hotel websites do not invest in SSL connection and data encryption.
What does that mean for you?
There’s a risk that your data may be stolen.
Credit card details could be stored in raw form like in an excel sheet or not encrypted, which means that people are able to hack into the system, obtain your data with ease and use your credit card to buy another luxury holiday, perhaps.
So for your own security’s sake, when you book with a smaller hotel, ask how they handle your credit card details.
4. Hotels’ websites may not be as user friendly as the OTA’s
When making a booking, you have to fill out all your personal information and credit card details again and again, which is wasting your time when you are regular customer, whereas if you book through an OTA, once you sign up, you don’t have to enter those information repeatedly.
There may be hotels that offer the same advantage as the OTA, but probably not the smaller ones.
Plus, a lot of hotel websites are not mobile-friendly and it makes it difficult for you to book that hotel fast from your smartphone.
Sometimes, you can’t even find a “Book now” button on their website!
When I try to find some info on some hotels website, I am like
5. You cannot compare hotel rates easily
Comparing rates between hotels can be difficult without an OTA (unless you are super loyal to one hotel or brand and you do not intend to stray).
You cannot easily compare rates, packages, hotels, etc. without jumping from one website to another, which is hugely time consuming.
For me personally, this is the number one reason why I use the OTA most of the time – to save time and to discover many new ones, which often do not have the marketing budget to go out on the market on a big scale.
Tired of jumping back and forth to find your perfect hotel?
Too much information? Let me summarize my personal verdict using an infographic:
Hopefully with these tips I can help you a bit to travel smarter.
No exact one way is better than the other – they are just different options, and I can just give you the facts from the best of my knowledge and experience.
So you can decide which option suits your needs best.
Somebody who just wants a bed to sleep in at a good rate (Mr. OTA) has different expectations than the guy who wants to book a hotel to propose to his girlfriend and does not want to risk a “NO” to the big question (Mr Hotel direct booking).
Wishing you a safe travel wherever it takes you!
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Silke is our luxury hospitality guru with over 20 years of experience in hotels & resorts under her belt, that made her work, live and experience very diverse places , such as London, Kuwait, Paris, Nice, Seychelles, Dubai, Mauritius and Thailand. Silke is responsible for Travelogue and her mission is to create community between travellers, bloggers, Bali industry professionals and helping each other through personal stories, experiences and unique ideas, to travel smarter in Bali.