Experienced travellers are savvy enough to find the best deal on a flight.  With the explosion of discount travel websites and mobile apps it’s never been easier to plan a trip and customize even the most complex itinerary.

Since 1996, when Expedia and Travelocity first made it possible for customers to book flights without the help of a travel agent, online travel agencies and comparison websites have helped drive down prices and keep airlines honest and transparent about their fees.

Best way to book a flight

The main benefit to using an online travel website to book a flight is that you can find out which airlines service the route and compare prices.  You might also find flight combinations that aren’t available through any single airline, which can be common for an international flight with multiple stops.

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On the other hand, booking directly through the airline website will likely get you the cheapest price, with no hidden fees, in addition to other benefits like frequent flyer miles.  The main advantage to booking direct might come down to trust.  If something comes up, who will have your back?

It’s a lot easier to manage a change of plans when you book directly with the airlines, according to Barry Choi, a television director and frequent traveller from Toronto.

“Even something as simple as picking your seats can be a lot easier when booking directly with the airline,” he said.

When you book tickets through an online travel agency you hope it will advocate for you when something goes wrong.  For instance, say a weather delay causes you to miss a connecting flight, who’s responsible to notify you of the change?  At the airport, it’s easier to deal with an agent at customer service than it is to call Expedia’s toll-free number and explain your situation.

Discount booking site, or airline direct?

A recent survey by FlightView, which provides daily travel information for airlines, airports and technology companies, confirms that the majority of travellers prefer airline websites to book travel.

The survey was based on 2,066 people who used FlightView’s mobile app in April.  It showed that 59 percent of travellers usually buy their tickets from airlines, while nearly 30 percent buy them from online travel agents, eight percent buy from traditional travel agents, and three percent say they don’t book their own travel.

Related: So You’re Ready To Dump Aeroplan: Now What?

The survey also shows that travellers routinely go to non-airline websites to gather price or other flight information before using an airline to book a ticket.

While visiting several discount travel websites can offer clues about the price and availability of flights for your trip, it can be time consuming, not to mention confusing, to sort through all the data.  A website like Kayak can help save you time by comparing hundreds of travel sites at once to find the best deal.

A quick search for a December flight from Toronto to Orlando, Florida showed remarkable parity amongst the different websites.  Air Canada, Expedia, and Flight Hub – the best match from Kayak – all revealed the same round-trip Air Canada flight for $441.  The difference was that Kayak displayed a wider variety of results, including flights departing from nearby airports in Hamilton and Buffalo.

Google Flights

Choi, who blogs at Moneywehave.com, recently got back from a European vacation that included stops in Istanbul, Budapest, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges.  He used Google Flights to begin his search.  Simply pick a start and end point and Google shows you which carriers can do those routes.  Google does not sell flights so when you’re ready to buy it links you back to the airlines.

“I like how you can see what flight paths are available so you can see where you can get a free stopover.  It also comes in handy with booking multi-destination tickets,” said Choi.

Related: One Aeroplan Member’s Somewhat Satisfying Update

Say you’d like to fly from Toronto to Paris, France sometime this fall.  Google Flights reveals that the cheapest day to fly is September 29th, where a round-trip ticket goes for $845 on Air Transat.  A similar flight on Air Canada costs $1107.

Make sure to compare apples-to-apples when searching multiple websites prices on flights.  Some sites, like Flight Hub, display prices in American dollars, while others may have hidden fees that aren’t revealed until the end of the booking process.

It’s smart to try a number of comparison websites and airline websites and go right through the booking process – stopping short of entering your credit card information – to get the total cost of the flight before booking.

Discount booking sites

  • Google Flights: If your dates and budget are flexible, this is the place to start to see how far your dollar will go.
  • Skyscanner.ca: The best resource for discount airlines.  Flights in Europe are easily found for under $100, including fees.
  • Expedia.ca: It now lists neighbouring airports, which helps you find the lowest fare; just be sure which airport you’re booking from.
  • Kayak.com: When you create an account, you can set up alerts based on your preferred location and price.  Kayak will email you if a flight meets your criteria.
  • Airbnb.com: After airfare, accommodations are your biggest expense.  Consider renting an apartment directly from owners.

Mr. Choi said he prefers to book with whoever offers the lowest price, but he tends to favour booking with any company that gives some kind of reward.  In his case, that’s Expedia with his TD First Class Visa Infinite.

“If prices are all equal and I get no rewards then I’ll just book directly with the airline,” said Choi.

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If you do end up booking through an online travel agency, stick with the big ones like Expedia and Travelocity, who can offer 24/7 customer service and handle most issues that can arise during your trip.

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