I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler, but to save a few bucks, I made a rookie mistake with my airfare over spring break. In the interest of saving you the hassle I experienced, I encourage you to always book your airline travel direct through the airline instead of through a third-party discount website.
The day I pulled the trigger on buying 7 plane tickets, it was $20 cheaper per ticket to buy through Orbitz than to buy direct through Frontier. So I did it. But in the long run I ended up spending over $200 in extra baggage fees that I could have avoided by buying directly through Frontier.
Here's what I learned about the risks of buying third-party airline tickets. It could be that Frontier's policies are particularly punitive to fliers who do not buy direct from them, but I still recommend the safety that comes from buying directly from the airline.
Economy class is better than the alternative
I spent two hours on the phone with Frontier the night before my flight trying to check in. I used to think that economy class was the lowest class in airline travel, but I quickly found out that there is an even lower class: economy class tickets purchased through a third-party website.
Since I didn't have a Frontier record locator, it took forever to find my record and confirm we were on the flight. The issues with my flight just continued. The agent who helped me quickly explained my ticket was marked as a third-party airline ticket, and thus I would incur extra costs for things that even economy class flyers could expect for free.
Hidden fees erase any cost savings
To save money, we wanted to carry on as many bags as possible. We found out that Frontier allowed passengers who booked tickets directly through Frontier to bring one carry-on for free, but we would be charged $25 each way for each carry-on bag.
*Frontier has since changed their policy and as of April 28, 2014, economy fare ticket holders must pay $25 to bring a carry-on bag.
Many third-party websites also charge a change fee in addition to the change fee charged by the airline. Orbitz charges $30 per ticket, in addition to the airline change fee, which can be up to $200 for a domestic flight.
Assigned seats are optional
Orbitz allowed me to request seat assignments, but when I called Frontier, I was told that my family of seven didn't have seat assignments, and wouldn't get them until we checked in 24 hours before the flight. They offered me the option of paying $8 per ticket to purchase a seat assignment.
When we finally checked in, we were assigned the last seats left on the plane–7 middle seats scattered throughout the plane. If you want to add stress to family travel, consider driving to the airport knowing that your young children don't have seats near you. We arrived early and an agent was able to give us five seats in the very back of the plane, and my husband and oldest daughter had to stick with their middle seats further up. I rode in the back with my four youngest kids.
Customer service is notoriously poor
When I tried to call Orbitz about my check-in issues, after a lengthy wait on hold, I was told to work directly with Frontier anyway. The time I spent trying to reach Orbitz was a waste. Reports of poor customer service from Expedia, Orbitz, and the like abound on the Internet.
Changes to your itinerary can be difficult to resolve
If your travel is disrupted and you call the airline for help, they will likely direct you back to the original source where you booked your ticket. This means instead of working with Frontier to rebook your ticket if a storm, mechanical issue, etc. impacts your flight, you must reach an Orbitz agent and rely on them to sort out your travel issues. No one at the airport is required to help you rebook your travel.
A Better Way to Buy Airline Tickets
So how do you find the best airfare without spending hours trolling the Internet? Use a major travel search engine (my personal favorite is Expedia), and when you find a flight you like, go directly to that airline's website and book directly through the airline. You will almost always find similar pricing, and if there is a discrepancy, you may still end up saving money in the long run.
You could also call the airline and see if they will price match the lower fare you found online if they are not offering it on their website.
Whatever you do, save yourself the headache and do not purchase third-party airline tickets if you can possibly avoid it.