Jun302016

Significantly lower United Airlines ticket prices with OTA sites. How do they do it?

This is actually my question and I am seeking some responses. Today I posted fares for Chicago to Paris at $499 with Delta. Ticket prices I found for United nonstop flights were $507 round trip. Then a few hours later I see a similar post on SecretFlying.com.

Loyalty Traveler – AA, DL, UA $499 Chicago to Paris Sep 28-Oct 20, $466 Amsterdam, $533 London.

SecretFlying.com – MEGA POST: NON-STOP FROM CHICAGO TO MANY EUROPEAN CITIES FROM ONLY $385 ROUNDTRIP.

When I examine the airfare links on SecretFlying.com going through OTA meta-search engine Momondo.com, the fares for the same United flights I priced earlier today come up on different online travel agency sites at ticket prices up to $80 lower.

How do they do it? Are these sites taking a loss on ticket prices?

Here are some examples using Chicago fares available today I found through Google Flights at 12:30pm Pacific time.

Google Flights ORD-CDG Oct 10-18

Click through the United links and I get the $499 fare.

ORD-CDG $499 UA Oct10-18

United Airlines Chicago ORD – Paris CDG nonstop flights

$498.86  Mon Oct 10 – Tue Oct 18

ORD-CDG $498.86 UA Oct 10-18

Plug these same dates into Momondo.com and the ticket price for these same United nonstop flights comes out significantly lower through several OTA sites. All these fares were searched around 12:45pm Pacific time.

Momondo.com ORD-CDG OTA lower prices

Momondo.com shows four OTA sites with the same United Airlines flights priced from $50 to $70 lower than united.com. The other 18 OTA sites are priced in $490s.

The same Chicago – Paris United Airlines nonstop flights priced at $498.86 round trip on united.com are being sold for:

$429.86 Flightbanks.com

ORD-CDG UA Flightbanks $429

$442.36 TravelMerry.com

ORD-CDG $442 TravelMerry

$443.86 Hop2.com

ORD-CDG $444 Hop2.com Oct10-18

$448.86 CitiAir.com

ORD-CDG $448 CitiAir.com

I notice all the lower fares are United/Star Alliance, even though American Airlines has the same $499 fare on these dates. I don’t see any discount fares for the American Airlines $499 tickets Chicago ORD – Paris CDG.

I have wondered many times why I don’t see many of the low fares shown on SecretFlying.com? Obviously I am not looking at booking through the lowest priced websites selling airline tickets.

Do any readers have answers to how the OTA sites are selling airline tickets at significantly lower prices than the airline’s themselves? Are they burning through venture capital funds to promote their sites?

Any reason not to book airline tickets through these lower priced online travel agencies?

Seems all I have are questions.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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  1. The pricing you see on orbitz is the published pricing. Many travel agencies have contract pricing with United and other airlines which are much lower than published pricing. They could still sell you the ticket at published pricing and pocket the difference as profit. However, they are giving you a chunk from their commission/profit to entice you to buy through them. The problem with buying with many of these OTAs is that they are shady and you can’t trust them. That’s a problem we’re solving.

  2. I often find no availability or the fare reprices when you actually do get to the payment page. Some sites add their own web fees or surcharges also. Most have a strict no cancellation/changes policy, and dont permit seat selection.

    In any case, I’d still be inclined to book via the airline unless it was $50 or more different.
    Also, just a +1 for my dislike of SF.

  3. I know I’ve seen this on Google which links you through. When I’ve seen it, it’s been due to Google searching another country’s version of the United site. However, as a US resident, United’s system detects that and won’t let me purchase. I wonder if these other companies have a way to make a foreign purchase stick.

  4. @Chris – I checked some foreign websites like United Airlines Norway for lower United fares, but I did not see lower prices for these Paris fares.

    I also went to a couple websites to read reviews of the OTA sites and they are mixed, but mostly people seemed happy with the sites and ticket prices for FlightBanks and TravelMerry.

    Most of the complaints were about fares rising when they clicked through, but that happens to me every day with Google Flights when I search low airfares. Many of the low fares don’t last too long.

    Today I had the pleasant surprise of clicking through some Google Flights fares and getting lower ticket prices show up.

    @Alvin – I plan to continue primarily using the airline’s own website pricing in my articles, unless it is a deal like the other day where Orbitz, Expedia and Priceline had AirBerlin fares for $200 less than the AirBerlin website.

  5. @Ric – Could it be that since booking directly with the airline (United, for example) would grant you award miles/etc., while booking with a no-name OTA wouldn’t afford you any of those small “benefits” you get with booking directly? I’ve found some OTAs pricing slightly higher than booking direct, at which point their BRG offers a great arbitrage opportunity (and usually a quick $50-100).

    Last thing I could think would be a miscalculation of some tax, or ‘forgetting’ some fee along the lines (dropped the fuel surcharge, or aren’t collecting some departure/arrival tax inadvertently). I’ve seen this happen between airlines, where AA will charge a “Security Fee” or “Departure/Arrival Fee” but BA won’t, for the exact same ticket/route/etc.

    Just speculating at this point. I’d still definitely stick to the reputable sites like you mentioned above — I think there were a couple odd UK based OTAs which consistently get terrible reviews for holding funds, changing pricing after purchase, etc.

    Thanks for the post! Always great info, and a reminder to check around.

  6. Very important to note that most of these are bulk discounts and do not count towards the evil PQD system or the equivalent rules at Delta and AA. I made a mistake by booking UA with TravelMerry which I did save around $100 on a transatlantic flight but realized my original calculation of achieving Star Alliance Gold next year is all but lost.

  7. The reason that PQD is so evil, is that massive earning on partner airlines can still get you nowhere as far as elite status , which is highly against the whole alliance thing.

  8. I had not thought about PQD in terms of OTA tickets.

    PQD pretty much negates my ability to earn elite status with AA, DL, UA in the future since I spend nowhere near that kind of money on airline tickets.

    I still have to decide where I will credit my upcoming late summer UA flights to Europe in 2016. I am thinking Aegean Airlines.

  9. I have looked at this option but they give very little miles for UA flights, you are probably better off with Krisflyer that tend to give good value for UA or maybe AC.

  10. RoamAmore has it right. They are consolidator fares and the OTAs are not losing money. The fares usually accrue miles though sometimes at a lower rate (though I have also found cases where consolidator fares accrue more for some reason, possibly because the crediting airline cannot determine the fare class.) There may be credit card surcharges (added by OTA not by your bank) but otherwise the bottom line may still be slightly lower. I try to avoid these OTAs unless the fare difference is large as any changes/cancellations whether voluntary or by the airline will likely be a nightmare to deal with

  11. I think these are low grade economy class tickets that either earn 0 miles or they don’t count toward as miles toward status.

    The other issue—some third party sites may not be publishing all the taxes and fees.

  12. Ric Garrido says:
    June 30, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    @AF – unlike hotel loyalty programs, I think you still get all the frequent flyer benefits even when you book through OTA sites.

    Yes if you’re a frequent flyer elite you can USE your benefits on these cheap tickets. But more often than not the airfare class is on-qualifying for EARNING elite status, mileage credit, PQD’s, etc. Even if they are not through an OTA, there are super deep economy fares that don’t earn any (or maybe 5% like Delta) credit.

    You just have to match the letters to the accrual charts, as many of us know.

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