How to Choose a GDS: Amadeus vs Sabre vs Travelport
GDS is one of the first abbreviations you learn in the travel business. Global Distribution Systems are responsible for providing booking websites with unified access to a massive inventory of flights, hotel rooms, car rental companies, cruises, and much more.
On our own TravelTech forum, we regularly get questions about the pros and cons of different GDSs, integration issues, and basic API information. We’ve tried to load our best intel about flight connectivity and hotel APIs into separate articles, but the GDS topic is relevant to everyone who’s entering the travel booking world.
Here’s our guide for understanding the three main GDSs and connecting to them.
What is a GDS?
A Global Distribution System, or GDS, is a computer network operating as a middleman between travel agents and numerous travel service providers. It collects inventory, schedules, and fares from providers and gives agents and OTAs an opportunity to search and book them: using connectivity APIs for OTAs and via a manual terminal for agents.
The idea of a Global Distribution System first appeared due to the necessity to distribute flight tickets. To get a better understanding of how it emerged, how it works, and how to handle it, don’t hesitate to watch our video.
How Airline Distribution Works
There are numerous large and local GDSs, but we will talk about the three main ones, covering almost every part of the world. They are Amadeus, Sabre, and Travelport (which combines Apollo, Galileo, and Worldspan).
How to Connect to GDSs Step by Step
This is a beginner-friendly guide to starting your travel booking business or at least its online part. Here’s the typical journey when a starting OTA.
Get IATA or ARC accreditation
If you’re not planning to sell flight tickets, feel free to move forward, but for flight booking capability, apply for IATA/ARC certification or consider signing up with a host agency or a consolidator. Being accredited is not mandatory for using a GDS, but, to be recognized as an industry professional and provide ticketing, your OTA should be IATA- or ARC-certified. What are the basic application criteria?
- being an experienced representative of your industry
- acquiring a business license
- meeting the financial criteria, allocating the deposit on a special IATA account.
Your application processing can take months. However, besides the accreditation itself, you obtain a number of benefits such as best pricing rates from over 200 airlines, along with standard invoicing and payment interface between you and suppliers. Here’s our full guide to different types of IATA accreditation and how to acquire one.
Pass the GDS terminal training
For human agents, a global distribution system operates as a command string on a blue (or green) screen. This means that agents must learn the system and understand how to formulate queries to find the best options, all considering their (or their agency’s) personal agreements with suppliers. That is why all of the three major global distribution systems that we’ll later discuss ask for a certified travel agent.
Both GDS providers and third-party training platforms offer courses and certificates. The price also varies, depending on duration and complexity. Usually, GDSs give qualifications to existing partners who attend a training course on particular solutions or knowledge areas.
The certification is obligatory. When the training is successfully completed, a travel agent obtains their own access key to a personal terminal account to work at.
Important: You should look for training giving you certification with an access key, as there are also those for supplementary knowledge. Anyway, it’s all negotiated at the agreement stage.
Sign an agreement
GDSs work in an on-request manner. This means that to get close to custom information or quotations from a GDS, you need to contact them with a prepared report on your business. Your business model, annual revenue, and expected growth are some of the pieces of information you want to include. The problem with GDSs is that they’re the market veterans, so your request may take longer than the connection to alternative inventory providers (which we will cover later). While you wait, try free sandbox solutions that some GDSs provide – we will also talk about the possibilities below.
Negotiate competitive deals
A GDS is basically a hub or a marketplace that connects the interested parties – travel agents, OTAs, TMCs – and suppliers. The success of your GDS cooperation depends on the relevancy of data being submitted by suppliers. So, to obtain the most profitable and beneficial deals from suppliers via GDSs, you should arrange it with suppliers yourself, aside from GDSs. And GDSs, in their turn, allow you to establish the rates already negotiated with suppliers.
Now that you’re familiar with the preliminaries, let’s proceed to understanding how each GDS works.
As we’ve already mentioned, there are three major players: Sabre, Amadeus, and Travelport. Here are their differences and common features.
The future success of your OTA partially depends on the diversity of options that you can suggest. After all, a GDS’s main advantage is providing a one-stop-shop for various travel services. Here you can compare how broad the industry reach of each GDS is.
Hotels, flights, or cruises – choose the one that fits your business needs better
But, the massive reach doesn’t always represent the quality of the provided content – property descriptions, images, etc. However, if you want to load hotel content or partner with hotels directly, you need a hotel mapping tool. This is the rule of thumb for anyone working with GDSs: If you’re not looking for an all-in-one solution, see if there are specialized providers that offer more relevant content.
Amadeus inventory and coverage
Amadeus is considered the most versatile GDS. It consolidates around 490 airlines, 770,000 hospitality properties, 69 car rental companies and transfer carriers in 42,000 locations, 43 railway carriers, and 53 cruise and ferry lines. The main area of Amadeus distribution is the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). Both North and South America and the APAC region (Asia-Pacific) are equally popular.
Flights. The classic flight search and booking functionality is presented in all GDSs, Amadeus included. Amadeus also has services for business travel (useful for TMCs) and packaged rail and air booking.
Hotels. Not offering much in terms of content, Amadeus gives basic hotel booking capabilities, with search and pricing details. It also owns an iHotelier GDS, that offers connectivity to all main GDS, combined.
Car rentals. Apart from basic car booking, Amadeus has rich visual content and airport shuttle/transfer options.
Cruises. Amadeus Cruise Web Services provides extensive cruise booking availability with transfers, special services, excursions, bus availabilities, and more. Apart from regular booking, it supports modifications and cancelation opportunities.
Railways. Acceptable rail bookings using Amadeus consists of regular search and ticketing, plus some additional services like accommodation.
Insurance. One of the distinguishing features of Amadeus compared to other GDSs is that it offers insurance shopping along with booking. It connects both OTAs and retail agencies with dozens of global and local insurance providers and allows them to create insurance documents with pre-filled information.
Sabre inventory and coverage
Sabre, a global distribution system with a strong background, has descended from a computer reservation system initially developed by American Airlines. So, it’s fair to assume that Sabre mostly serves for the Americas. In the Asia-Pacific, this GDS was less popular until it bought the largest GDS in Asia – Abacus. The EMEA region is the least served.
The Sabre distribution channel unites around 440 airlines, 50 railway carriers, 37 car rental companies across 40,000 destinations, 20 cruise lines, and more than a million hotel properties.
Flights. Sabre offers extensive functionality for flight booking, including mileage count, seat maps, queue activity, and more.
Hotels. Similar to Amadeus, Sabre has limited hotel data availability that provides basic search, booking, cancelations, and access to loyalty program data.
Car rentals. Sabre has several APIs for car rentals, which allows for building a comprehensive search and booking platform: calculating rate depending on length and fees, precise geo search, search by special requirements, and so on.
Cruises. Despite the smallest inventory of cruise providers, Sabre gives access to full cruise content, including interactive maps and cabin images.
Railways. Besides standard features, on Sabre a traveler can purchase rail cards, find station codes, and manage rail tours.
Travelport inventory and coverage
Travelport GDS aggregates and distributes information across channels on access to airlines, rails, cruises, and car rentals. Additionally, it allows for parsing information on available hotels and tours.
Travelport GDS is likely to be the only GDS equally covering all directions and continents. It’s evenly represented in the Americas, though to a greater extent in South America, EMEA and the APAC region. In its distribution channel, Travelport combines 650,000 hotel properties, 400+ airline partners, 125 low-cost carriers, car rental units in over 38,000 locations, 50 cruise lines, and 19 railway carriers.
Flights. Travelport gives access to booking direct flights, connected air and train routes, and also ancillary services, such as baggage, meals, and insurance.
Hotels. Apart from basic hotel content and booking, Travelport offers deals from non-GDS providers: Agoda, Tourico, and others. It also has support discounts for corporate clients.
Car rentals. Travelport’s car rental functionality is standard: search, pricing, images, vehicle details, and cancelation.
Cruises. Important to note, currently Travelport provides cruise booking opportunity only to travel agents who request direct booking via a web-based platform.
Railways. Travelport is heavily focused on providing combined air and train booking availability, including data on optimal connections with flights, ticketing air-rail as a single ticket, and offering train transfers directly to and from an airport.
If you have been working in this business long enough, you know that API connectivity is still one of the main methods of data exchange in the travel industry. Here’s a recap of APIs main GDSs offer and the data they provide.
Amadeus for Developers introduces two types of API sets, with different levels of access.
Self-service APIs provide the testing platform for young booking websites that allow them to start building apps fast and prepare them for production. They cover the following:
- Flight and fare search (booking, flight utilities, and flight choice prediction)
- Hotel search and shopping, hotel ratings
- Destination location
- Trip utilities
Enterprise APIs are the main representatives of the Amadeus API family. They cover nine inventory types:
- Car mobile options
- Cruise lines
- Travel insurance booking
- Customer profiles
Each of these includes multiple APIs. Some are of informative value, such as the lowest fares search. The other part is built for booking. Regarding technology, Enterprise APIs are built for exchange both in REST/JSON and SOAP/XML formats. Pricing and conditions on access will be available upon direct contact with the Amadeus team.
Sabre APIs provide almost the same set of functions as Amadeus does. Sabre breaks its APIs into eight groups:
- Ground transportation (car rentals and rails)
- Trip management
- Session management
At the moment, the system doesn’t offer insurance and airport transfer options. The access to the system is also provided by contacting the Sabre team. Both REST and SOAP APIs are available.
Travelport combines three GDSs: Apollo, Worldspan, and Galileo. They are all merged into a single Travelport Universal API. In contrast to Amadeus and Sabre, the universal API is a package of the following functions:
- Air API connect
- Rail API connect
- Travelport rooms
- Fares and ancillaries
- Customer profiles
Access to the API, as always in the cases of GDS providers, is available after direct contact with the Travelport team. It’s available via a single SOAP/XML interface.
New Distribution Capability or NDC is a recent initiative that comprises a technology for providing rich content and selling ancillary services in flight booking. Currently, the problem with third-party air booking lies in the lack of shopping for extra services – you can purchase meals or extra luggage only directly. But NDC aims to change that by implementing a new XML standard for data exchange between suppliers and booking platforms.
GDSs have also started working on NDC adoption.
Amadeus is developing and promoting its own NDC-X program and has already gained dual Level4 certification from IATA as an NDC aggregator and IT provider. This means that Amadeus API users can support an end-to-end ancillary booking flow with selected airlines.
Upon launching its Beyond NDC program, Sabre has been recognized with Level 3 NDC certificate both as an IT-provider and an aggregator in short order. The certification means that Sabre’s technologies and capabilities totally match IATA’s standards and can provide a full scope of services.
Travelport was the first GDS to achieve Level 3 certification from IATA. Travelport has presented its NDC solution in its 2017 roadmap. Initially introducing it for airlines only, Travelport has been taking action to integrate it for OTAs in the coming stages.
Questioning whether OTAs need NDC doesn’t stand anymore, as all three GDSs managed to support NDC booking. For OTAs, it means more services and choice for their customers, and potentially – better deals from airlines that you help by upselling.
Low-cost carriers connectivity
The integration of GDSs among low-cost carriers has been neglected for a long time, mostly because of extra fees charged by GDSs that carriers tried to eliminate. This means that OTAs had to contact LCCs directly if they wanted to give access to budget flights. We’ve covered this topic deeper in our dedicated article on LCC distribution. However, currently, we see a gradual growth in opportunities for LCC shopping via GDSs.
Partially, because it’s becoming more beneficial for GDS providers to share low-cost resources and partially because of the growing rivalry among distribution channels for low-cost carriers, currently, GDSs suggest some products adjusted for the low-cost model.
LCCs that main GDSs support with industry-specific conditions
Amadeus is currently connected with over 90 LCCs. It offers three ways to book a flight from its dedicated resource:
Amadeus e-ticketing involves full integration of the airline with the same booking capabilities as full-service airlines have. According to Amadeus, this type of ticketing is used by WestJet, Vueling, and Norwegian Air Shuttle.
Light ticketing from Amadeus is an e-ticketing type of booking that enables immediate ticket issuing. It allows for removing ATPCO from the distribution network with the usage of the XML interface. Light ticketing is now available through several airlines like EasyJet, Transavia, Spring Airlines, Jet2.com, and AirAsia. For OTAs, this type of distribution means that LCCs are directly integrated into their middle- and back-office systems.
Amadeus ticketless booking via SSR e-pay. Here, the booking system uses the customer’s credit card instead of issuing a ticket. Such airlines as Jetstar, Spirit Airlines and TUI fly are using it.
Travelport offers access to low-cost carriers via a Smartpoint solution. It returns information on branded fares and ancillaries and lists LCCs along with other airlines for quick comparison. The platform is available only for manual booking via travel agents.
Sabre offers LCC booking with common conditions, but with the help of its merchandising technology, some of them can sell their ancillaries via the platform. For now, it supports Transavia, easyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair, WestJet and more in the program.
One of the primary concerns of any business is the price for the technology integrated.
None of the three major GDSs will give you a straight answer. Amadeus, Sabre, and Travelport want you to contact them directly to get the details on the integration price. Amadeus suggests Self-service APIs for testing the environment that is free of charge. It has a limited quota access, which varies depending on the function. If you are planning to use them for production, they’re the same model. However, if the number of API calls goes beyond the quota, this would cost €0.0025 – €0.04 (for each API call).
The pricing on any GDS will likely be shaped based on two factors:
- The market you would like to expand on
- The quality and quantity of inventory you want to obtain.
Subsequently, for any of the three GDSs, it’s impossible to predict the time to market. We can at least say that it’s based on a few conditions:
- How fast you are ready to pay the quoted amount of money
- How well your product awareness and the whole product strategy is built
- How well the suggested technology solution is integrated into your entire system
- How fast you undergo the IATA accreditation
If not GDS, then what? Alternatives to keep in mind
Generally speaking, GDSs have two main use cases:
- OTAs and TMCs that are striving to cover all travel management needs
- OTAs and TMCs where air flight distribution is an integral part of the business.
That being said, GDSs are the main source of inventory for flight distribution. So, if your main focus is hotels, consider other distribution options.
Affiliate with large OTAs
Anyone working in the travel industry can hardly deny the power of OTA mammoths Expedia and Booking.com. Being dominant in the travel market, they can also provide distribution support to a smaller business, taking their own profit from it.
Expedia Group has over 1 million properties across its subsidiaries. They can be accessed via Expedia Partner solutions. Also, it has a pretty powerful RESTful API for hotel distribution. It currently offers the following:
- Live rates and availability
- Rich content (500,000 accommodations)
- Booking, cancelations, and modifications
- Recommendations (finding alternative properties nearby)
Booking.com currently suggests over 2 million properties listed in an affiliate program allowing for different types of services besides API. It includes multiple widgets, banners, search boxes, and many more. The API, though, doesn’t lag behind. It supports both XML and JSON formats and affords the following capacity:
- Live rates and availability
- Hotel content
- Room booking via both the Booking.com link and the API itself
If you consider Booking.com API integration as an option, your software solution should be PCI DSS-compliant.
What’s the benefit? They contain almost everything, except for properties with Airbnb exclusive distribution contracts. Saying that Booking.com has over 29 million listings is a pretty convincing argument. Along with that, you get full content and reservation support.
In this distribution model, a wholesaler signs a contract with a hotel for a particular period of time to sell a set of its rooms for a fixed price. The rooms are then sold to OTAs and TMCs. Hotels and wholesalers are striving to keep their rooms filled to capacity and resort to having special negotiated room rates. It may have a negative impact on hotel revenue management, considering the fact that the price has to change with the demand. With pre-negotiated rates for months, that isn’t the case.
What’s the benefit? For many OTAs, wholesalers are the main source of inventory. Some large players like Hotelbeds tend to offer high-level customer service, advanced APIs, large inventory, and further expansion in the market.
Direct connection to providers
The direct connectivity to transport and hospitality providers is also one of the appropriate options to focus on. Usually, direct connectivity is available via two-way API communication that allows sending messages and exchanging data between different systems. For this, a hotel or transport provider needs to make their information available in an XML or JSON format, and an OTA needs to have software that can send XML and JSON requests and translate responses.
What’s the benefit? With the direct connection, an OTA avoids middlemen and gets relevant and updated content. The fewer third parties there are, the more competitive pricing you have.
No doubt, GDSs are the best at… globally covering distribution for travel networks. Sure, they have drawbacks like extensive requirements, bureaucratic confirmation processes, and abundant resource consumption. And there’s still room for growth for GDS adoption of low-cost carriers. Also, we should not forget about NDC (new distribution capability) which has yet to be expanded.
Apart from that, there’s no straight answer to the question of which GDS is better: Amadeus, Sabre, or Travelport. The answer is more complicated, and we hope this article helped clear things up.
If your travel company is not that tech-savvy, employ a travel technology consultant, and consider other options.