Is your online travel agency offering the best deal. Pexels

When you're shopping on an online travel site, does everything look the same? It does to Ron Woods, a retired insurance salesman from Walnut Creek, California.

Over the years, he has watched with concern as they merged. Airbnb bought HotelTonight. Booking.com acquired Priceline.com, Kayak.com and Cheapflights.com. And, of course, Expedia.com purchased Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com.

Woods, like many other travelers, is frustrated when he sees the same fare or hotel rate across several sites, no matter how hard he looks. 

"What value does an online travel agency offer?" he wonders.

He's not the only one wondering. 

Has a wave of mergers and acquisitions killed competition? If not, then why does everything look the same? Why do you find the same rate across several sites? Also, do travelers looking for summer deals have options other than those offered by large online travel companies?

"The online travel market is very competitive," says Steve Shur, president of Travel Tech, a trade group for online travel agencies. 

He acknowledges that there have been "some mergers and acquisitions" in online travel services, but he says the sites continue to jockey for your travel dollar.

In fact, only one in five bookings is made through online travel sites like Expedia, he says. 

An additional 10 percent are corporate agency bookings, but the balance are direct bookings, in which travellers like Woods click directly on a site such as Marriott.com to reserve a hotel room.

Shur says online agencies are useful because they allow for comparison shopping, something you can't do when you book directly. Online agencies can also bundle various components, such as airline tickets, hotel rooms and activities, to offer more value.

There's an explanation for the sameness of the deals. Rasmus Juul-Olsen, CEO of the Danish online travel agency Bookmundi.com, says agencies display similar prices because the inventory and prices come from the same sources. "At times, however, some third parties are getting special or exclusive discounts," he says. But the agencies continue to compete with one another for your business.

So what are your options for booking summer travel? 

The conventional wisdom has been to start your search with an online travel agency. The sites let you query a variety of travel suppliers for the best option. If nothing else, the results will give you an approximate idea of how much you should expect to pay.

Even if you think you've found the best deal on an online site, consider one final step: Call your travel agent. 

Professionals may have access to deals you can't find online. As an added benefit, that travel expert will advocate for you if something goes wrong on your trip.

Yes, it's a little confusing. If you consult an online agency exclusively, you're not always getting the full picture. 

If you book directly, you can't comparison shop. A quick but careful search of online travel sites, your preferred airline or hotel and a call to your travel agent will yield the best results - at least for now.

The Washington Post