NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Almost 20 years into the revolution triggered by the launch of Expedia (1996), Priceline (1997), Hotwire (2000) and many other online travel agencies, a new question is being asked: Is now the time to go back to booking direct with airlines, hotels, even car rental companies? The reason: Just maybe one-stop convenience is getting trumped by sweeter deals found when shopping directly.
That sounds so 1995, but savvy travelers are insisting the dominance of the OTAs is at an end. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, remembers when he would walk into a Borders bookstore a decade ago and knew it was a dinosaur because people weren't buying books — they were flipping through pages, maybe taking notes on key passages. He says he sees the same at OTAs: "People are not buying from them, they are using them for informational purposes," Hobica says. (Borders, by the way, liquidated in 2011.)
Hotels in particular are effectively bribing guests to book directly with them. Why? Bookings through an OTA involve a 15% fee for a national hotel chain and as much as 30% for a little independent. Book a $200 room at an independent and it in effect has $60 per day it can toss your way to win a direct booking.
A wrinkle is that the OTAs insist on what they call "rate parity," and that means a hotel cannot offer a cheaper rate than it gives the OTA — except when it can. "Rate parity" nowadays applies only to publicly available rates you find on the Web. That means an email to loyalty club members can offer whatever rate; a clerk in a call center can too. There are lots of ways around rate parity, and nowadays travel providers are expert at this — which works to your benefit.