Let’s delve into a brief lesson on the basic concept of OTAs vs. metasearch engines.
Previously, these terms were fairly straightforward to define, but technology has progressed and there are now many ways in which these services overlap. We’ll do our best to make a decent distinction between them here, but we’ll warn you…it’s not always that simple!
Online Travel Agency
Online Travel Agency: a website that traditionally offers both search and booking capabilities. OTA services usually include flights, hotels, and rental cars, with some also offering vacation rentals, cruises, and events/activities. OTAs often offer bundles to secure greater discounts when booking multiple services together.
An OTA is a sort of “middle-man” between the user and the airline/hotel/etc. While they no longer make commissions on flights, OTAs may take a cut of 15%-20% of your booking fee from the hotel.
Additionally, OTAs also often have toll-free phone numbers for personal assistance with booking/re-booking reservations.
Big players you’ve likely heard of in the OTA industry include Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, and Booking.com, among others.
Metasearch Engine: one overarching search engine that aggregates data from various sources (including other third-party search engines, OTAs, hotel websites, etc.) to provide a more comprehensive results page. This tool basically does what you’d do yourself by checking multiple different websites to compare airfares; it just checks more sites much faster… and no offense, but it’s probably smarter!
In the past, metasearch engines only offered the capability to search, directing the user to a third party OTA or individual airline to book and charging a small fee for their services. That’s no longer always the case, as we’re seeing some metasearch engines emerge with the capability to book directly through their websites.
Similar to OTAs, metasearch engine services usually include flights, hotels, and car rentals; some even provide packages to rival OTA’s discounted prices when booking services together.
Big players you’ve likely heard of in the metasearch industry include Google Flights, Kayak, Momondo, and Hipmunk, among others.
Here’s where it gets confusing. Most OTAs now offer price comparison features that essentially stack their results up against other search results, providing a more metasearch-like result. However, this option usually allows users a max of 3-4 comparison sites, whereas metasearch engines compare many more.
In addition, some metasearch engines like Hipmunk now offer assistance with travel planning, booking, canceling, etc., whereas before this was strictly OTA territory.
Things get even more convoluted when an OTA (ex: Expedia) buys a metasearch site like Kayak. Or when a metasearch site like Hipmunk uses an OTA (Travelocity, owned by parent company Expedia) to power their hotel bookings. Or when a metasearch site like Skyscanner offers various OTAs (Kiwi.com, lastminute.com, etc.) through which to book your flight.
Lastly, we all know OTAs rank their results. How do they do that? Is it fair? Our friends at Duetto Research provide an eye opening report into the ins and outs of OTA search results.
The list goes on, but by now your head may be swimming!
The point is, whether you choose to use multiple OTAs or a certain metasearch engine is really personal preference, and truly depends on how much digging you want to do yourself.
We list both types in our travel resource post on flight searches and go into our thoughts on the best of the best in a separate post.
Additionally, we’ve got an entire article dedicated to the best websites for booking hotels at the cheapest prices.
After all, it is an extensive look into travel resources, and we wouldn’t be Upgraded Points if we didn’t go in-depth!