They were adored by travellers on a budget, despised by Travel Agents on the highstreet - has the era of the Online Travel Agent (OTA) been and gone?
Travellers typed their travel plans into the black box of the internet search bar and were presented with seemingly endless options on e-tickets. Quoting rates airlines and high street travel agents couldn't match, few questioned how it worked.
It all worked like magic, until it didn't.
Now after two years of navigating Covid-19 restrictions and the chaos of post-pandemic headaches, travellers are getting wise to the tricks OTAs were pulling to promise too-good-to-be-true holidays, and the problems they can cause. Like the Wizard of Oz, the Covid-19 pandemic has pulled the curtain from some internet travel companies, and all the heel-clicking in the world won't get you back to Kansas.
Yesterday, the New Zealand consumer watchdog Consumer.nz called out OTA eDreams by name, warning travellers to avoid the company. The company was blamed for taking traveller's money and their confidence for granted, despite being powerless to do anything.
So why have so many travellers trusted companies, many of which they had never heard of, for so long and with thousands of dollars of airfares?
The answer is because, for about two decades, it worked.
The heyday of the OTA was around 2018. Boosted by search engines and comparison websites, most travellers had no qualms in choosing the cheapest quote from seemingly identical itineraries. They rode the same web evangelism of tech giants that gave us Facebook and Google.
Seemingly endless reems of websites and quote comparison for flights and hotel nights, each clamouring to undercut the next by single dollar amounts. Some had particular niches like last minute hotel discounts or cheap airfares. There were even OTAs specialising in 'mistake fares', scraping the internet for fares published with the wrong price to offer $600 tickets to Europe and other "eye-popping" rates.
Searching via recognisable comparison websites - Skyscanners and Trivagos - travellers would be served up a second tier of OTAs, which would be the companies bidding to sell you a ticket.
There were GotoGate, DreemWorld, EzTravel - some you'd heard of, some you hadn't, all of which had a maverick approach to spelling, capitalisation and travel.
Online Travel Agencies were something of a high-risk high-reward approach to travel. When everything was going "tickety boo" they were your ticket to exotic places and cut-price fares, when they weren't, you were left high and dry.
Since the pandemic some of the tricks being used to undercut the competition have come to light and it's not pretty.
Bulk buying and reselling discount tickets isn't the only bit of trickery. Cutting costs in customer support and other areas are obvious shortfalls. Some OTAs hold on to passengers' money, wait for fares to drop before booking and banking the difference. (Always ask for your e-ticket up front!)
Unfortunately, given the increasing cost of travel recently, fares have only got more expensive. This led to last minute cancellations or OTAs offering passengers less direct (cheaper) routes than they originally booked. According to some travellers, some OTAs have been cheeky enough to ask passengers to pay the difference on more expensive fares before they can fly.
In 2018, Dream World Travel was called out by the Times for taking passengers' money and never buying tickets. It's something many OTAs still do.
Following Consumer NZ's scathing criticism of eDreams, parent company eDreams ODIEGO OTA has claimed that their brands had saved travellers "one million hours" of travel research. They see this as a service in itself.
However apart from presenting attractive - often unrealistic - travel deals, the OTAs give little else to travellers. This convenience had helped them corner the market. Pre-pandemic around 80 per cent of travellers booked flights via a comparison website, according to ODIEGO. But those burned by OTAs during the recent travel chaos are unlikely to go back.
Currently Consumer NZ recommends you "book with a New Zealand-based travel agent with a good reputation for customer service, or book directly with the airline."
In future travellers will be willing to spend more time researching and a little more on flights in order to save the chaos of last minute cancellations being left high and dry by OTAs.