Expedia's move to buy competitors Orbitz and Travelocity brought yawns from industry analysts who predict that the wave of consolidations in the online travel business will have no impact on what the average consumer finds in search results or pays for trips.
As someone who has followed the gradual decline in usefulness of third-party search and/or booking sites, I disagree.
The effects of consolidation may not seem apparent at first, Changes occur gradually, and travelers generally are not the winners. Partly to blame are the airlines and hotels which have become more skilled at steering customers directly to their own sites. Once there, comparison shopping is not nearly as easy.
Kayak.com, which started out a meta-search site for finding complete and non-biased listings of the lowest air fares with direct links to the airlines for booking, used to be my go-to site for one-stop air searches. With the exception of Southwest, nearly all airlines participated because Kayak didn't actually sell tickets, but rather steered business to the airlines via the direct links.
But things have changed since Priceline acquired Kayak in 2012. Unlike Kayak, Priceline competes with the airlines by selling tickets. The result: No more direct links to some of the major airlines for booking.
Example: I tried searching Kayak recently for a flight between Seattle and London, Fare results came up for flights on British Airways, Iceland Air and Air Canada, but there were no direct links to those airlines for booking.
Kayak, instead, sent me to third-party discounter Airfare.com in the case of the BA flight; JustFly.com for the Air Canada flights and Vayama.com for Iceland Air flights.
A search for Seattle-Frankfurt flights, which Lufthansa services with daily non-stops, brought up no direct links to Lufthansa, only links to third-party sites including JustFly and Priceline itself.
As most experienced flyers know, booking with third-party resellers rarely has any advantages. The savings, if any, are minor, and the hassles major should a problem occur. Frequent flyer mileage credits are sometimes lower, and penalties for making changes can be higher. Priceline, for instance, charges a $30 per ticket exchange service fee in addition to whatever fee the airlines charge.
Not all airlines are opting out of Kayak searches. Kayak still supplies direct links for flights on Delta, American, Air France and many others, but clearly things are changing. Travelers have other choices, of course. Google Flights has improved it search functions and provides direct links to most airlines. And Kayak is still useful, as long as you know to take the info you find there and go directly to the airline for booking rather than book through one of the third-party resellers.
Bottom line: Third-party search sites still offer the most convenient way to comparison shop, but it's important to cross-check the search results with fares and flights shown on the airlines' web sites. Check not only fares and restrictions, but also flight pairings that might not show up on the third-party sites, depending on what info the airlines decide to make available.
Hotel booking sites can be convenient, especially when making reservations in other countries, but they don't always offer the best deals, or even the widest range of room choices.
I did some comparison shopping while booking hotels in Italy and Riga, Latvia recently.
Expedia offered me a double room with private bath for two nights at the Hotel Indipendenza in Rome for 218 euros, including taxes and fees, payable at the hotel when I arrive. (I ignored the offer of a $3 per-night discount if I paid online at the time of booking). Booking.com, owned by Priceline, offered the same room for 229 euros. The hotel's price, if booked directly, was 200 euros.
Not all rooms hotels have available show up on the third-party sites. Here's two examples:
In Naples, Expedia actually offered a less expensive rate for a standard double room at the Hotel Il Convento than I found on the hotel's website. The price for a three-night April stay was 368 euros on Expedia vs. 384 euros on the hotel's website and 414 euros on Booking.com. What I didn't find listed on Expedia was a smaller "budget'' double, available directly through Il Convento for 256 euros.
In Riga, Expedia, Booking.com and the Old City Boutique Hotel all quoted 80 euros per night for a "Classic Double'' with private bath. But neither Expedia or Booking.com showed the possibility of booking an "Economy Double,'' a less expensive option that I found on the hotel's web site for 65 euros.
As with air fares, use the third-party sites to shop around and compare user reviews, which don't appear on hotel websites. Booking.com, Expedia.com and Expedia's affiliate, TripAdvisor.com, all publish reviews that can be helpful in deciding where to book.