Do airfares really cost less online?

April 9, 2001

To find the answer, our author experimented. Here&s what she learned.

 

Do airfares really cost less online?

Jump to:Choose article section...Understanding the Web sitesOur test resultsThe fairest of the faresRoute: Chicago/London round tripRoute: New York/Los Angeles round trip

To find the answer, our author experimented. Here’s what she learned.

By Risa Weinreb

The author is a travel writer based near San Francisco.

Airline tickets typically account for 25 to 30 percent of all trip expenses. And travelers, expected to shell out $12.4 billion buying travel services online in 2000, are starting to wonder how good a deal they’re getting. "All I can find are the airlines’ regular prices," and "The rates are the same all over," are typical complaints. One frequent flier summed it up: "I used to find cheap fares on the Internet–but I can’t anymore."

The wintry discontent isn’t coming just from consumers. In September, the Connecticut state attorney general, in response to more than 300 complaints, began investigating the cyberspace auctioneer Priceline.com. A month later, the Consumer Reports Travel Letter examined travel Web sites and concluded that the Internet "is no more likely to garner you the best airfare than a low-tech telephone." From their research, they found problems with flight availability (sites quoting low fares that were unbookable) and purported bias (sites giving on-screen preference to advertisers and preferred suppliers who pay higher commissions).

Online travel sites counter that their systems are equitable. "Lowestfare.com does not bias the results of a fare search in any way other than offering the lowest available fare," says Ken Swanton, chief executive officer.

Understanding the Web sites

Part of the unhappiness stems from consumer confusion. When surfing the Web, you’ll find several kinds of sites hawking airfares.

Airline sites. Each major domestic and international carrier has a Web presence. These sites list complete schedules, official (published) fares, and special promotions and discounts for that airline only.

Online travel agencies include well-known Web addresses like www.travelocity.com and www.expedia.com. In general, these sites use the same databases as airline sites and human travel agents–and each other. Travelocity, for example, pulls its airfare database from Sabre, a computer reservations system that accounts for nearly 40 percent of travel agency reservations.

Recently, the Internet travel agencies began offering discounts on selected airlines. For instance, Travelocity offers discounts with TWA, Expedia with American Airlines.

Airfare consolidators–also called "bucket shops"–are the Costco of the skies, buying airline tickets in bulk and then reselling them to travelers. Leading consolidators include Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com), Economy Travel (www.economytravel.com ), and Lowestfare (www.lowestfare.com ). But the bargains reportedly aren’t as good as they used to be.

Auction sites. Priceline (www.priceline.com ) and the like let travelers name the price they want to pay for an airline ticket. The downside: You can’t be sure what you’re getting before you commit your plastic. On Priceline, for example, you must agree in advance to fly on any major airline willing to meet your price, and on any flight departing between 6 am and 10 pm.

Our test results

How economical is buying airline tickets on the Internet–and is it worth the angst? To find out, I priced two itineraries last fall: New York/Los Angeles and Chicago/London round-trips. Since airfares and seat availability change quickly, I did all pricing on the same day so I’d be able to compare apples with apples.

I examined fares quoted by online travel agencies, ticket consolidators, and the airlines’ own sites. Next, I checked fares by phoning airlines’ toll-free numbers. Finally, I asked a travel agent to quote the best fares he could find on those routes for the same travel dates. Our fare-buster agent–with more than 30 years in the business–was Lloyd Cole of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York..

Our search objective was the cheapest fare; I recorded the lowest fare offered from each source, regardless of convenience or the sleep deprivation that flight would entail. I ignored cancellation penalties. For nine hours, I punched in airport codes, dates, and my mother’s maiden name. Then I analyzed the fruits of my modem.

The cheapest airfare I found from New York to Los Angeles was $207 on the ATA (American Trans Air) Web site. The highest Internet fare was more than 100 percent higher: $424 from the America West Web site. Lloyd Cole landed $214 on ATA, Frontier Airlines, and Spirit Airlines. None of those flights were nonstop, but Lloyd found a $269 direct flight on JetBlue Airways that landed in Ontario, CA, just 37 miles from Los Angeles. (With a direct flight, you stop en route but remain on the same plane.)

For the New York/LA route, I also booked a ticket on the best-known auction site, Priceline.com. After 30 minutes of bidding, with a flurry of e-mails and phone calls (some from a human, others from a HAL-voiced computer), I thought Priceline had produced the cheapest fare of all: $195 on US Airways. But my bliss evaporated when my final confirmation came through. The total price with taxes and fees was $216.95, slightly higher than fares widely available on the Web with less agony, uncertainty, and restrictions.

Price differences for the Chicago/London jaunt were more dramatic. I nabbed a $550.75 fare on the Cheap Tickets Web site (www.cheaptickets.com), flying US Airways (connecting in Charlotte, NC, flying into Gatwick). Meanwhile, US Airways’ own site quoted $807.80–nearly 50 percent higher–on the same flight, same day in May. Travel agent Cole was quoted $640.70 for flying aboard SAS (Chicago to Paris) and British Airways (Chicago to London via Paris), as well as a nifty $677.60 flying nonstop with Air-India.

If I learned anything during the nine hours of pointing and clicking, it was that getting from here to there inexpensively often means enduring crack-of-dawn departures or returns on the red-eye.

Nonstop flights either cost more or were unavailable, relegating me to flights with one or more stopovers. On itineraries proposed by both Expedia and Economy Travel, it would take two layovers and a stultifying 9 hours, 17 minutes to make the return trip from Los Angeles to New York–almost double the five-hour nonstop time. For fly-hard masochists, US Airways offered a protracted journey from LaGuardia to Los Angeles International Airport, zigzagging via Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Philadelphia, all for $314–$100 more than the cheapest one-stop airfare offered by ATA.

The fare game may become less capricious this spring, however, with the launch of Orbitz, a travel-planning Web site that will feature airfares from more than 450 carriers worldwide. Founded by the five largest US airlines (United, Delta, Continental, Northwest, and American), the site pledges to deliver "the most comprehensive listings of publicly available fares and flight options without bias toward any travel providers."

Wanna be among the first to check it out? Log on to www.orbitz.com , where a prototype is up and running. The site’s search engine will show you the best flights and fares–but only for domestic jaunts (international flights are slated for inclusion this year. To purchase a ticket and check availability, you must phone an airline or travel agent.

Also useful to know: The US Department of Transportation requires airline phone reservation agents to inform customers when discounted fares are offered on the airline’s Web site. These super-low "e-fares" usually become available just a few days before departure. But the requirement applies only when a phone shopper specifically asks the agent for the lowest possible fare.

The fairest of the fares

For now, the answer to our question is: Yes, you can find low airfares on the Internet. Sometimes, the lowest fares (see chart). But unless you devote hours to the project, you’re just as likely to book a bad deal as a good one.

Here are Lloyd Cole’s tips for finding the best fares:

• Book Early. Airlines offer only a small percentage of their seats at the absolutely lowest rate–and these cheapies book up quickly.

• Act Fast. Once you find a super-low airfare, be prepared to book it immediately. "Five minutes later, that cheap flight could be gone," he says.

• Try again after midnight. Airlines generally revise their inventory at 12 am. Additional low-cost seats might be made available then.

• Fly weekdays. Fares are generally lowest on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and somewhat higher on Monday and Friday. Weekend departures tend to be the most expensive, especially to vacation destinations like Hawaii or the Caribbean.

• Stay over on a Saturday night. Many low fares require travelers to spend at least one Saturday night at their destination before their return flight.

• Be flexible. When checking fares on the Internet, vary departure dates and times, as well as airports. If you’re flying from New York, for example, check fares from JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports (as well as Long Island McArthur Airport, if that’s convenient for you). To destinations such as Europe, price airfares to neighboring cities.

• Look before you book. Most low airfares come with enough restrictions to ground a 747. Nearly all super-cheap fares are nonrefundable. Some charge a substantial fee for changes, while other itineraries can’t be modified at all. Also, find out whether your ticket is endorsable–that is, whether it will be honored by other airlines if your scheduled flight is delayed or canceled.

Here’s what travel writer Risa Weinreb found during her comparison-shopping research on the Internet, and by calling airlines’ toll-free numbers.

Route: Chicago/London round trip

SITE: American Airlines (www.aa.com )

Number of stops each way: none

Total cost: $807.80

Price from telephone reservations agent: $807.80

SITE: British Airways (www.britishairways.com)

Number of stops each way: none

Total cost: $800.52

Price from telephone reservations agent: $800.52

Comment: The very helpful "fare explorer" feature (for UK flights only) lets you see dates and times when lowest prices are available.

SITE: Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com)

Airline: US Airways

Number of stops each way: one

Total Cost: $550.75

Comment: The site refused to accept my dates and destinations three times. Then it crashed just as I was making my booking, and I had to begin again. After four attempts, I secured the tantalizing $550.75 fare. Total booking time was horrid–more than 30 minutes.

SITE: Economy Travel (www.economytravel.com)

Airline: Air Canada/United

Number of stops each way: one

Total Cost: $782.99

Comment: The site was fast and efficient, but it didn’t offer a big selection of fares or airlines.

SITE: Expedia (www.expedia.com)

Airline: British Airways

Number of stops each way: None

Total Cost: $692.52

Comment: The fare was a special, limited-time offer with British Airways.

SITE: Lowestfare (www.lowestfare.com)

Airline: British Airways

Number of stops each way: none

Total Cost: $800.60

Comment: Weird–if I pressed the "back" button to check on information I entered previously, the system changed my specified flight dates.

SITE: OneTravel (www.onetravel.com)

Airline: American Airlines

Number of stops each way: none

Total Cost: $807.78

Comment: The site gave me a choice of several different flight times.

SITE: Travelocity (www.travelocity.com )

Airline: British Airways

Number of stops each way: none

Total Cost: $800.60

Comment: If I changed my travel dates by one day, I could have saved about $30.

SITE: US Airways (www.usairways.com )

Number of stops each way: one

Total cost: $807.80

Price from telephone reservations agent: $807.80

Comment: The round-trip fare for the same flights was $550.75 on Cheap Tickets.

Route: New York/Los Angeles round trip

SITE: America West Airlines (www.americawest.com )

Number of stops each way: one

Total cost: $424

Price from telephone reservations agent: $447

Comment: Very fast, efficient site

SITE: ATA (American Trans Air) (www.ata.com)

Number of stops each way: one

Total cost: $207

Price from telephone reservations agent: $217

Comment: Site gave me a wide choice of flight times, unlike the online travel agencies and airfare consolidators.

SITE: Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com )

Airline: ATA

Number of stops each way: one

Total cost: $225.95

Comment: I really, really resent having to register just to surf airfares. Beware: Their "express search" option (which lists up to three airlines) doesn’t always yield the site’s lowest airfare. Instead, use the "power search" option, which requires you to laboriously click on each individual airline.

SITE: Economy Travel ( www.economytravel.com )

Airlines: ATA and America West

Number of stops each way: westbound, one; eastbound, two

Total cost: $287.38

Comment: Departure from LaGuardia was at–egad–6:20 am. And the return trip dragged out to a nine-and-a-half hour marathon, thanks to layovers in Phoenix and Chicago/Midway.

SITE: Expedia (www.expedia.com)

Airline: ATA and America West

Number of stops each way: westbound, one; eastbound, two

Total Cost: $285.50

Comment: The return trip hopscotched across the country, stopping at Phoenix and Chicago for a travel time of over nine hours, including connections.

SITE: Lowestfare (www.lowestfare.com )

Airline: ATA

Number of stops each way: one

Total Cost: $214

Comment: I was unable to access information about restrictions and additional fees before purchasing a ticket. Return flight from LA was the red-eye. When I tried to type in my information to make the reservation, it kept rejecting my date of birth. A call to tech support revealed that the system has a glitch and rejects certain years. Everything worked fine when I made myself a year younger.

SITE: OneTravel (www.onetravel.com)

Airline: ATA

Number of stops each way: one

Total Cost: $214

Comment: The itinerary required taking the red-eye back from LA. No details were given about layovers or total travel time. You cannot see ticket restrictions or information about fees and taxes until you commit to buying the ticket.

SITE: Priceline.com (www.priceline.com)

Airline: US Airways

Number of stops each way: one

Total Cost: $216.95

Comment: When making their bids, travelers have some choices about their flights: whether they’re willing to fly off-peak hours, make more than one connection, travel on different dates, etc. The bidding process took about an hour. Flights that came through had reasonable departure and layover times.

SITE: Travelocity (www.travelocity.com)

Airline: ATA

Number of stops each way: one

Total Cost: $214

Comment: To nab the lowest fare, I had to return from LA on the red-eye.

SITE: United Airlines (www.ual.com)

Number of stops each way: none

Total Cost: $417.60

Price from telephone reservations agent: $439

Comment: I got nonstop flights at the times I wanted–for a price.

SITE: US Airways ( www.usairways.com)

Number of stops each way: one

Total cost: $410.50

Price from telephone reservations agent: $426

Comment: Comic relief. The site offered me the option of a $314 round-trip ticket–if I was willing to fly LaGuardia/Pittsburgh/Columbus/Philadelphia/Los Angeles one way, and Los Angeles/Philadelphia/Columbus/Washington, DC/LaGuardia the other.

 



Risa Weinreb. Do airfares really cost less online?.

Medical Economics

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