Here’s your worst nightmare: you book a ticket, score an unbelievable deal and show up at the airport counter, where the airline has absolutely no clue of your reservation. Or maybe the travel agent just actually booked you an economy ticket, when they said you were flying business class. Unfortunately, these issues happen every day. Here’s how to know whether the company you’ve never heard of is worth booking with – or if it’s just better to book directly with the airline or a major site like Expedia, SkyScanner, Orbitz or CheapOAir.

Shocking Deals

Online travel agents exist to take commission from every flight, hotel, car rental and experience they sell. If the deal seems to good to be true, it may not be, but you need to take a closer look. Shock value is a key determinant. If every travel site is displaying prices of $500 for a flight, and one is displaying $200 – something is wrong. If one is showing $485 and the others are showing $500, perhaps that agency is just taking less commission. Bottom line: if it’s real, chances are more than one site will have it or something similar. If it’s half as much as every other site, you’ve gotta wonder. Airlines offer extreme flash sales lasting mere hours all the time, and we always share those deals. If you score a “shocking deal” always go onto the airline website directly to ensure your booking is there and in tact, long before you fly.

Just Google It

If you’ve ever been on TripAdvisor, you know every near perfect thing on earth has at least one terrible review. But if every single review is terrible, or the company has crossed the hairs of the Better Business or Citizens Advice Bureau’s, that’s an instant sign that something is amiss. Any upstanding travel agent or online travel booking site will also have an online footprint. There will be a website, reviews and booking searches you can access. If that doesn’t exist, or the online travel agency only exists on Facebook – be very, very weary. If they don’t take credit cards, run away immediately.

Meta Search

Use Momondo or Kayak? Have they sent you to an online travel agency you’ve never heard of? These sites changed online travel booking by not just being booking sites, but comparing booking sites to show you the best deals from all over the web. In theory any site listed on one of these search platforms has been vetted and should be trusted, but it’s always good to do a bit of research. Some of the sites they send you to are slow to actually process tickets, or call back requesting more money because the original deal is actually sold out. Again, just Google it.

E-Ticket Lag

In today’s world of technology, tickets should be issued almost instantly. If you make a booking and your e-ticket hasn’t shown up 24 hours later, you should start to worry. It may not be that the online travel agency isn’t legit, they may just be bad at their job of issuing tickets. This can cause extreme frustration for last minute tickets, where the airline can see a reservation has been made, but can’t actually check you in, causing you to miss a flight. A good online travel site will quickly furnish you with a record locator from the airline itself. This is a great safety measure, because you can then instantly go online to the airline’s website and see what they see. If your record locator shows exactly what you were hoping, you’re good to go. If you get a run around about receiving a record locator or e-ticket number – you’ve gotta start to worry. You must then get in touch with the online travel agent promptly before 24 hours has passed. Demand answers.

24 Hour Cancellation

For consumers all around the world, it’s important to note that many airlines offer 24 hour risk free cancellation policies, for tickets booked more than seven days in advance of travel. In fact, if your flights touch the United States – the airline must offer this. If you have serious doubts about your online travel agency within 24 hours of purchase and they give you the run around, that’s an instant clue that they are not doing legitimate business. Any legitimate travel business will quickly release your funds and process a full refund to the initial payment method.

Warning Signs

Only taking bookings over the phone, not taking credit cards or not having a functional website are great first clues. If logos look fuzzy, dated or forged, like an Amex logo that looks like a kid made it in Windows 95 – be worried. Never do business with a travel agent that doesn’t take credit card. Most credit cards offer fraud protection, whereas bank account and wire transfers often do not. At the end of the day, it’s your money. Five minutes of research is always worth it. And again, always double confirm any reservation is real by going to the airline directly to select seats or enter your information.

Is It Safe To Use An Unknown Online Travel Agency?

There are few occasions where an online travel agency has a better flight deal than the airline itself. Of course, if you’re saving up to 50% on business class by using clever package bookings, or taking advantage of a pricing error on a site – this changes. But with those few niche examples aside, you’re almost always better off just booking with a major site, or better yet – with the airline directly. When you book directly with an airline it’s easier to upgrade, view reservations and make changes.