the promise of finding an inexpensive airline ticket has never been greater, with dozens of websites claiming to offer the best deals. kayak, hipmonk and mobissimo are elbowing in on stalwarts like expedia expe -2.40% and travelocity. and lately, googlegoog +0.62% has gotten in on the fare game.
but more search power hasn't made it simpler to find the perfect ticket. while each site claims to offer the lowest ticket prices, there's actually wide variation in the prices they find. they start with the same data loaded by airlines but end up with different results. some use their own technology to sort through airline schedules, fares, rules and inventory and sell tickets as an online travel agency. some search other websites to aggregate scads of prices and then send buyers to buy at other sites. some cull inconvenient itineraries from listings while others throw in every $20 savings even if there are extra connections and overnight stays.
"it's kind of mind-boggling to think how complicated a mathematical problem it is. to get me from [new york] jfk to los angeles, there can be over one billion possibilities," said robert birge, chief marketing officer at kayak.journal community
searching for a simple phoenix-philadelphia round-trip in february, for example, produced eight different fares. prices quoted ranged from $284 on onetravel.com to $341 on expedia. a round trip from raleigh, n.c., to shanghai ranged from $992 on priceline and to $709 on cheapoair. after checking 10 different domestic and international routes using 14 different websites kept producing a wide range of fares.
the lesson of it all: it pays to shop around, since none of the sites turned out to be consistently cheaper than others. shop at least a couple of websites, including the websites of the airlines you are considering, to really make sure you are checking all options and getting an accurate read on the best price.
fares can be misleading, since search results may be out of date or the flights no longer have available seats at a particular price. in one case, mobissimo found the cheapest price for virgin atlantic nonstop, round-trip flights from las vegas to london. but pick that choice, and mobissimo sends you to a site called exploretrip which said, "we are sorry, the selected itinerary isn't available."
a few sites tack on their own fees—above those charged by airlines—and turn cheap into steep. in one case, a $693 fare for a las vegas-to-london round-trip ticket turned into $861 when cheapoair's fees were included.
and some sites offer "unpublished" fares and special discounts they negotiate with airlines that want to sell unsold seats without slashing regular prices and triggering matching fare cuts from competitors. that's far more common with hotels than with airlines, but you do occasionally see an offer from an "undisclosed" airline. caution: those fares often come without benefits like frequent-flier miles or advance seat selection.
another potential disappointment: is it worth saving $200 on webjet.com if the raleigh, n.c., to shanghai itinerary requires overnight stays in new york both going and coming? how about saving $20 via mobissimo for a seattle-to-paris round-trip flight that includes a 23-hour layover going and 17 hours on the return?
at the root of the fare tangle is the complexity of airline pricing. airlines file prices for every conceivable route they can offer with their schedule, plus flights offered by their partners, to a company called airline tariff publishing co., which is jointly owned by 17 airlines and distributes data several times a day to reservation systems.
each route may have 20 different prices from each airline, and 50 to 60 different rules—certain fares may be used only on tuesdays, others must be sold 21 days before departure, some only apply if you connect in chicago, for example. as well, the inventory of fares on a flight changes constantly.
"there are many reasons why there are different price points out there," said jay brawley, atpco's regional director for north america. "the complexity comes in with the volume, the number of fares and the speed'" of searches.
technology behind airfare websites also operates differently. expedia, orbitz and travelocity are among the online travel agencies that take data—the combination of schedules, fares, rules and inventory—from giant reservation systems. each system, and each agency, can apply its own rules and preferences.
sabre, one of the big distribution systems that powers travel agencies, some airlines and its travelocity unit, tries to apply reason to its search results, even if that means not displaying the cheapest fare.
"a fare may be $100 cheaper, but you have to make two connections. we can produce that, but the question is whether the consumer values that,'' said shelly terry, senior director of airline merchandising for sabre travel network. "that's where you have to apply some common sense."
other airfare sites are aggregators, meaning they pull fares from multiple sources and display them in one place. these include kayak, bing, hipmunk, mobissimo and google. each can also apply its own technology to searches, based on confidence in particular sites, for example.
kayak pulls fares from several sources and has direct connections with airlines and some travel agencies as well as aggregating fares that are found on other websites. it then applies its own "accuracy technology" to weed out bad quotes or irrelevant options.
"for the most part people are getting accurate information. but it's still an area that needs improvement," mr. birge said.
airlines, of course, prefer travelers to buy from their sites. southwest airlines fares, in fact, are only available online at southwest.com. american airlines has been fighting to get ticket-sellers to connect directly to american so it can reduce fees paid to distribution systems in the middle. carriers have generally accommodated aggregators because they often send customers to buy directly from the airline.istockphoto
overall, what helps differentiate each site are handy tools that can make shopping easier. microsoft corp.'s bing, for example, provides fare history—you can see what the price for a trip was over the past five months for a read on how high or low it might go. hipmunk displays flight options in colored time bars making it easy to see connections and what time of day flights depart and arrive. you can sort by hipmunk's "agony" index, a combination of price, duration and number of stops.
now google is provoking widespread fear among ticket-sellers. google earlier acquired a key fare-search technology company, ita software inc. the justice department approved the acquisition only after google agreed to let competing websites using ita's software license it at "commercially reasonable terms."
so far, google's airfare search is unimpressive—it doesn't yet offer international flights or jetblue airways inventory, for example. also, it only includes a limited number of u.s. airports. a spokesman said the offering is just an "early look" and google will be adding to it.