Is It Better to Book Your Travel Direct or with a Third-Party Site?

It is not just when you book, but how you book that can impact how much you're spending on trips.

There's so much information out there about when the best time to book is, down to how many months in advance to buy tickets, what day you should book on, and which travel days will yield the best prices. It's an ever-evolving subset of travel advice that is an essential resource when trying to book vacations on a budget.

The financial advice doesn't end at perfect timing. Ensuring you get the best deal also involves making sure you're maximizing which platform you are booking on. One of the longstanding debates on this topic centers on the question of whether booking directly with a hotel or airline versus booking through a third party like Booking.com or Expedia can save travelers the most money.

The personal finance experts at Self Finance produced research that addresses this exact question. Self Finance compared the cost of booking directly through an airline or hotel website compared with booking through three booking platforms: Expedia, Booking.com, and the online travel agency Agoda. The comparisons were made with the exact same hotel room types, without using any sort of membership or loyalty program. The same dates were used for all comparisons.

Overall, the study found that third-party booking platforms can save you up to 31% compared to booking directly on websites. On average, Booking.com offered flights that were 11% cheaper and hotel rooms that were 31% cheaper compared to booking the same exact room directly from the hotel website.

booking hotels directly vs. on a booking platform data
Courtesy of Self Finance

For instance, the average airline ticket price in the study when booked directly through airlines is $1,025.52, while the average ticket price through Booking.com was $917.83. The average ticket price was $923.81 through Expedia and $925.56 through Agoda.

"On average, the data showed that users will get better prices for flights using online booking platforms two out of three times (66%)," the study states.

Self Finance also compared 90 hotel quotes across 10 different popular cities, and determined that travelers can save an average of $18.43 per night by using Expedia, Booking.com, or Agoda to book their hotel. You can see the breakdown below.

hotel prices on booking platform vs. direct in popular cities
Courtesy of Self Finance
Courtesy of Self Finance

The downside of booking travel through a third party platform? It can sometimes be harder to make changes to reservations, especially for flights. We recently saw an example of this with the couple that had to spend thousands of additional dollars on new flight tickets because one of the flights was booked with a nickname.

Part of the complication of changing the flight was how last minute the error was caught, but it can also be hard to make changes with an airline if you booked through a third party. You have to use the third party platform to make the changes—it just might mean taking a few additional steps. But you should always determine the cancellation and change policies of the third party platform before you book—you might be locked into the dates or not be able to get a refund if you cancel.

Another potential con of not booking directly with a hotel or airline? You might not be able to build loyalty with that particular company. Depending on how frequently you travel, building loyalty can help you reach status that can translate into perks and more savings down the road.

"It is important to note that direct bookings can simplify the process should your flight be canceled or delayed and membership discounts can be had in some instances when going direct," the study noted.

Third-party platforms have admittedly developed their own loyalty programs, so if you do find that you prefer the savings of booking through Booking.com or Expedia or another similar platform, you can join their loyalty program for additional chances at savings and benefits.

Looking for more travel tips?

Whether you need help sneaking weed onto a plane, finding an airport where you can sign up for PreCheck without an appointment, or making sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to when your flight is canceled, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for up-to-date travel hacks and all the travel news you need to help you plan your next big adventure.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Journalism from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She's worked in digital media for eight years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.