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The never-ending airfare struggle (pt 1)

An update from today's WS Journal --

It may be time to try new ways to search for the best fare.

The booking side of travel is in a state of upheaval. Like airlines, air-ticket sellers are consolidating. Expedia has already swallowed up Travelocity, and a deal to acquire Orbitz is likely to be completed later this year. Like other areas of online shopping, new entrants with new capabilities and new promises are popping up. And search giant Google is rocking the industry by acquiring a leading reservation technology firm and launching a powerful flight-search site.

All this change means you can get more information about particular flights and add-on fees, but probably not a cheaper fare.

Airlines set the prices for their tickets. To assemble one fare, a booking system has to put together airline schedules with fares that are filed several times a day and then check availability. Some search engines find combinations of flights that produce a lower fare than others quote—pairing flights together from competing airlines, or even connections that airlines themselves didn’t find in giant reservation-system schedules.

“What you think is the lowest fare depends on who’s doing the asking,” says Steve Hafner, chief executive at meta-search site Kayak, which is owned by the Priceline Group.

New trends, like fares that don’t include seat assignments or higher-priced tickets that bundle in a free checked bag, early boarding, extra legroom or other amenities, also cloud what’s really the best deal. Fees charged by some booking sites can also confuse shoppers. CheapOair and OneTravel have booking fees as high as $28 a person that they bake into the fare.

And sometimes the fares quoted really are too good to be true. Sites may have price quotes out of date by a few minutes or even a couple of hours—they store up prices so they can answer customer queries very quickly, while others take slightly more time to check prices in real time with airlines. Click on a cached fare quote that’s changed and you’ll get a frustrating and seemingly suspicious message saying, “Oops, the price has gone up.”

Kayak checks price quotes in real time when the query is made, when someone clicks on a particular flight and when you click to go to a site to book. And 5% of the price quotes turn out to be wrong, Mr. Hafner says.

More than 30% of airline bookings are made through airline websites. Online travel agencies account for 15% to 20%, according to Atmosphere Research Group, a travel research and consulting company. The rest come through travel agencies—mostly business-travel bookings. For people who do book their own tickets, Expedia says the average consumer searches 48 times across websites before purchasing a ticket.

Liz Browning of Seattle books 15 to 20 flights a year for multiple family members on different airlines. She prefers the one-stop, do-it-yourself convenience of online travel agencies.

She was a fan of Expedia for years but lately has grown frustrated with its services. Travelocity and Orbitz don’t look like alternatives because of mergers. “I feel like I don’t have anywhere to go,” she says.

Expedia has been bombarding her with unwanted pop-ups and solicitations. To opt out, she finally felt compelled to call the company. It took three calls and several hours. Expedia also isn’t able to consistently get her Known Traveler number into her airline record, so she says she doesn’t get Transportation Security Administration PreCheck privileges.

Expedia says customers can opt out of email solicitations by changing preferences in account information and shouldn’t have to call. Senior Vice President Greg Schulze says that through testing, Expedia decided that pop-up ads “will only appear a limited number of times.” The ability to add Known Traveler numbers to profiles is a recent addition and once in an Expedia customer’s profile, Expedia sends the information to airlines with each booking.

Posted by
6774 posts

Couldn't you just have posted a link to the article? Just sayin'.

Posted by
795 posts

Hi, phred. Thanks so much for posting this interesting piece here instead of just posting a link. I don't care to have to leave the site to read articles. As you know, as a travel researcher and in our own personal travel, we travel only business and first class and all of the work travel year around is both booked and paid for by my employers. For our personal travel, I have always been frustrated at choosing flights. I remember when you just booked through the airline or a travel agent but then came the companies like Expedia and suddenly there were dozens of places to find choices as well as the airlines themselves. Now companies are eating other companies and removing options. Less competition is never a good thing. We recently booked a Viking River cruise which, since we booked their priciest accommodations (which are the most comfortable, have the most space, and have the best views), they gave us Business class air tickets for only a little over $900 each. The trip is for next year but by booking now, we paid the 2015 price for a 2016 cruise.

Posted by
7014 posts

Can you summarize what your point is? What are you asking anyone to respond to with this cut and pasted article? I don't see an issue with the fact that there are multiple search engines/platforms to compare multiple airline ticket prices against, and that ultimately the confirmation and booking of the exact route should be with the airline itself (this is for the protection of the traveler in case there are issues and also because the info is dynamic and may change before ticket is actually booked).

Anyone has the choice to use a search platform (whether Kayak, Google, etc) to see prices side by side OR to go to each airline website independently - one site after another if you wish. Anyone doing the former should not expect perfect information in real time 100% of the time because those sites may not always be grabbing the most-up-to-the-minute info. Nor should anyone expect them to devise perfect routing that makes sense of conforms to your exact expectations - they are using algorithms which may not always make sense or produce an optimum result. But they're free and make life easier to compare. Moreover, everyone has their "favorite" - mine is Itasoftware. So what's the problem again?

Posted by
337 posts

I don't think Phred has a problem; I think he just wanted to share information that's behind a paywall at WSJ. You can ignore it if it's not helpful or interesting to you.

Posted by
7014 posts

@Stacy - The name of the actual article is simply "The Best Way to Find an Airfare Online" (pretty neutral). It doesn't say anything about "never-ending airfare struggle" so that's why I asked what the OP actually thinks about the article and why.

Posted by
1064 posts

If you live where there is real competition among airlines -- assuming there is such a place -- the search engines might be worthwhile. But Delta is so dominant in the Atlanta market, that it seems a waste of time to bother searching outside their own website. I still do so -- hope springs eternal, after all -- but the only times fares seem cheaper on other airlines are for flights I would not want to take.

For instance, Aeroflot sometimes posts the cheapest fare for flights to Europe, with connections at JFK, but their reviews are overwhelmingly negative. Other lowball price quotes are for two or more transfers at odd hours on mix-and-match carriers. In other words, more trouble than they are worth.

Posted by
7014 posts

Sometimes the beauty of searching the comparison websites is you find some airlines you've never heard of (that's why they participate in the first place). For example, I was looking at flights to Bucharest and didn't realize that a Romanian Airline (TAROM) flies from North America and may be a better option than the more familiar airlines (just last month I heard of the Russian carrier Aeroflot for the first time too). If it didn't show up side-by-side in the search, I may not have sought it out (since "you don't know what you don't know" sometimes). The opposite is also true in that some airlines are not participants in the comparison websites because they want to steer all sales only from their web sites and avoid paying commissions to the comparison sites. Those will never show up in the search and include the likes of Southwest, Iceland Air, low cost carriers, etc. They apparently derive recognition from word of mouth or other advertising and don't want to play ball with Kayak, Google, Orbitz, etc. There's a proliferation of different options for searching airfares because they are all slightly different - and now they're consolidating because they have matured and discovered that some are not different "enough". In the latter case, there are economies of scale to be gained if they combine and get greater market share.

Posted by
11613 posts

Thanks, Phred, I appreciate not having to open a link, too.

Posted by
2448 posts

While you all appreciate the "Copy and paste" it's a violation of copyright laws as currently posted.

Of course that's the owner's issue and it appears his staff does not care, but that knowledge is why a lot of us would not do the copy and paste.

Posted by
1221 posts

And not just copy and paste, but copying and pasting an article that was probably originally behind a paywall as most WSJ articles are.

Posted by
13815 posts

@ phred....on "probably not a cheaper fare." I did get a cheaper fare this time. My intention was to book in early Jan for a departure on 20 May, open jaw this time instead of backing tracking which is what I usually do, returning on 10 June. But after procrastinating and more procrastinating, I still did not get around to booking until after mid-March. With the same particulars the price had dropped ca $150 or so from early Jan. This time, however, the waiting paid off. I didn't use Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, or any of the others.

Thanks for posting this information.

Posted by
11613 posts

Oops - was not thinking about copyright, thanks for the reminder.

Posted by
18683 posts

"... instead of just posting a link. I don't care to have to leave the site to read articles."

Terri Lynn,

on most computers and browsers, you can right click on the link and it will give you the option to open it in a new tab or window. Then you switch to that tab and read the linked text without having to close the original window.