There’s one piece of advice you’ll constantly hear travel experts harp on. Historically, it’s been for very-very good reason. If prices are the same, or even close, it’s best to book directly with the airline, because dealing with online travel agencies for changes, refunds or other issues can be a nightmare.
Sometimes though, online travel agencies turn up availability for flights that even airlines don’t. Look on the airline website, you get offered some flights at a certain price, but not others. When you want 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 if things changed, or flights were moved or cancelled, it might get messy.
And that day finally came. The airline cancelled my connecting flight, throwing off my entire itinerary. I felt I’d soon face the music for booking with an OTA — punishment for not following my years long, own advice to book direct. What happened next surprised and delighted me.
I Had A Great Expedia Chat
I logged into my Expedia flight booking online and searched for contact info. My initial read was not impressive. Like many airlines, a blanket pop-up was displayed noting a longer than usual wait time to speak to a representative.
Here we go, I thought.
But directly below, Expedia advised that most issues could be resolved via chat, with a single click. I was about 98% sure that this would be a bot, and that the bot would get me even more wound up 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 they quickly read the flexibility policy offered by the airline and a rundown of alternative options was presented. They didn’t need to be.
I helped to guide them through my preferred alternative flights and within 5 minutes the tickets were reissued to my liking. Sure, I could’ve potentially had a better time by selecting alternative flights online with the airline directly, but not necessarily.
I wanted to make a more comprehensive change that might not have automatically been offered by an airline IT system for rebooking. Or, in the case of many airlines, they might not have an online rebooking option for international tickets at all.
Point is: on this booking, I felt that the one reason you typically don’t want to book with Expedia was not a reason not to book. I had a great customer service experience which was equal or on par with most airline rebooking options — and in some cases, better.
Are OTA’s Learning How To Win?
Make no mistake, online travel agencies are largely massively successful. Their businesses are almost all upside. They don’t own hotels or planes, they just fill the rooms and seats, and make handsome commissions in the process. OTA’s are already winning.
But for discerning travelers, many of whom are high margin customers, booking direct has always been the way. As hotels shoot themselves in the foot with loyalty cuts, and airlines struggle to hire back enough people to provide good customer service, Expedia may be winning major ground.
If they take away the pain points of booking with them, versus booking direct, they’ll be able to slowly win more business from the most apprehensive customers.
You could also argue that improved travel booking experiences from major credit card companies has pushed OTA’s to be better. If that does start to happen, airlines may be forced to go the route of hotels, and offer better benefits or better customer service for booking direct.
There’s plenty of room for airlines and online travel agencies to grow in the customer experience realm, and this experience was a positive sign of what may be to come. The only side I’m on is customers getting better experiences. However we get there, it’s a good result.
What’s been your best or worst travel customer experience in recent months?