About a decade ago, I spent a few years as a freelance travel agent as a way to gain a little extra income helping others get good travel deals, intending also to take advantage of the perks and low rates often offered to travel agents.
As soon as I began my exciting new career — my timing as perfect as always — the airlines stopped paying straight percentage commissions (usually at least 10%), deciding instead to cap commissions to just $25 per ticket. Even those tiny payouts were significantly reduced a short time later, leaving cruises and resort vacations as the only big money makers for travel agencies, areas in which I had very little interest. By 2002, led by Delta Airlines, all US carriers had eliminated agency commissions altogether. I ducked out of travel soon thereafter because the business model just didn’t work, however the experience taught me a lot about the industry.
While 80% of all airline ticket purchases where made through brick-and-mortar travel agencies ten years ago, only 51% were booked through such agencies in 2004, and that number will continue to fall (or at least shift) as Internet-only “agencies” replace the hands-on, personal service that travel agents have traditionally provided. Thanks to the elimination of all airline ticket commissions, agencies (including the Internet-based ones) are forced to rely on their own internal, often hidden fee structures to add black to the bottom line, leaving the consumer a bit befuddled as where the best prices can be found.
Each of the major travel websites and aggregators was identically put to the test with four itineraries, involving many hours of agonizing tedium and several hundred searches. I also contacted four independent non-Internet-based travel agencies. Sadly, only one agency responded to my query and their quoted fares are included on each of the itineraries at the bottom of the table. Because I had to wait 36 hours before the first emailed response on Monday morning, I did not include the travel agencies in the final analysis because they would not have had access to the same Saturday-night rates as the travel websites, skewing the results.
Travel Website Pricing Comparison
|Travel Website||LAX to SFO||JFK to MIA||BOS to LON||SJC to SJD||Total Cost|
|Mobissimo||$169||$100 ⬅||$778 ⬅||$379||$1,426 ⬅|
|Priceline||$167 ⬅||$100 ⬅||$917||$373 ⬅||$1,557|
|Travel Agency||$259||$100 ⬅||$983||$459||$1,801|
The Test Itineraries
“Los Angeles to San Francisco; nonstop; leaving next Wednesday before noon, and returning Thursday between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.”
Most sites selected an American Airlines flight as the best choice. While Priceline managed to beat the American fare by $2 by switching to Virgin America, unfortunately CheapoAir, OneTravel, Travelocity, and UltimateFares (who all also chose Virgin) were not able to meet Priceline’s low price. AirFare was the only website to choose Delta, a costly mistake. Vayama would not price flights less than four days from departure, therefore they were ignored during the first scenario.
“New York’s JFK to Miami; nonstop, one-way; leaving on May 20.”
All of the websites returned the same two flights that matched the criteria best, one flying American Airlines, the other on Delta. Kayak, Mobissimo, and Sidestep had slightly better pricing (by $2) on American, while AirFare and CheapoAir went with Delta. The rest of the websites priced both carriers identically, with Priceline once again in the leader pack. Hotwire does not quote prices on one-way trips, forwarding visitors to its parent company of Expedia instead.
“Boston to London (either airport); one stop; leaving anytime on a Thursday or Friday in June, returning 10-12 days later on a Monday or Tuesday, also in June.”
The websites were split between two different carriers with this scenario. The best fares were from those eight websites that included Iberia Airlines in their search, AirlineConsolidator being the worst of those, while Mobissimo and CheapoAir battled for first place. The rest had fares greater than $900 due to selecting Air Canada, provider of the second-best-priced flight that matched the criteria, with co-owned Sidestep and Kayak leading that pack. Hotwire prevented me from viewing complex search results for about an hour for this one itinerary; my best guess is that Hotwire might have invoked some form of IP address throttling because my activity during the study may have resembled that of a web spider. Since data for this pricing study was gathered within a two-hour period just before midnight EST in order to compare site results fairly, the delay caused Hotwire’s pricing to reflect the next day’s higher prices, so their pricing was removed from the results of the third scenario.
“San Jose, CA to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico; any number of stops; leaving on the morning of August 17, and returning the following Sunday evening.”
All websites found the same flights (US Airways on the way out, and returning on Mexicana), except Farecast which recommended US Airways for both segments, and Travelation which used Alaska Airlines for the return; both failures to use Mexicana resulted in higher airfares.
Impressions and User Experience
Hotwire is owned by Expedia, so it was surprising to see different pricing from each. I rather expected both of them to act like Kayak and Sidestep, who merged together in December of 2007 — showing exactly the same results during each respective search.
Several other websites also had a number of technical difficulties: On the very first search, UltimateFares returned a system error without returning results, although it worked just fine after that. Surprisingly, three websites (FarePath, SmartFares, and Travelation) had some browser-compatibility issues with Firefox, causing me to manually enter dates that would otherwise have been selected by selecting a date on a popup calendar. And CheapTickets frequently timed out requests, requiring me to repeatedly re-enter the flight search criteria; when it did work properly it was consistently the slowest of the pack.
Orbitz repeatedly gave me pages full of returning flights outside the departure window I had set, making choosing a returning flight a bit more cumbersome. Expedia doesn’t allow searching by flexible dates for international flights, while CheapoAir and OneTravel did not allow flexible dates for any flights, so it was a chore coming up with good results for the third itinerary, requiring ten manual searches on each website. Kayak, Lessno, Priceline, and a few others allowed for some limited but useful flexibility when searching by date. On the other end of the spectrum, CheapTickets and Orbitz made the process extremely easy, providing completely relevant results with only a single search. Granted, the websites that offered flexible results were never the lowest…
Mobissimo won the price-comparison war among these airfare websites for the chosen itineraries. Not only did the site have the lowest price for one of the scenarios, it had the lowest total price and always came within only a few dollars when it was not the low-price leader. Mobissimo also did a great job determining which of the carriers to examine. Priceline led the pack in value for three of the flights, but missed the significantly cheaper flight in the third scenario. Had Priceline picked the correct flight, it clearly would have won.
The worst results were from Travelation — last place (or close to last) when pricing any of the segments, and highest total price for all four flights. AirlineConsolidator was a major candidate for last place, saved only because its $1,573 total was a lot better than Travelation’s outrageous grand total of $1,701. Coming in only slightly better were AirFare and UltimateFares, all of which failed to produce any decent fares.
I was quite surprised by the results. For the past several years I have relied upon Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire, and Sidestep as my four travel search engines of choice, yet none of them had the lowest prices in any of the scenarios. When Travelocity found the same airfare, it consistently beat or tied Expedia, Lessno, and Vayama as I expected — only to be trumped by Orbitz, which itself was consistently beaten by CheapTickets. Hotwire did well (when results were found), as did CheapTickets, although they were both beaten by Priceline every time.
Despite coming in last place for its chosen flight in the first itinerary, CheapoAir should still be considered as a frontrunner for comparison shopping because of its tying win with Mobissimo on the third itinerary and its respectable total price for all flights. Skip Kayak and go to the identical Sidestep instead, as Sidestep produced reasonably good results despite completely missing the boat on the trip to Mexico.
My new fab four: Mobissimo, Priceline (shocker!), CheapoAir, and CheapTickets. I will undoubtedly continue to query Orbitz, Hotwire and Sidestep, despite their mediocre performance, if not just for quick sanity checks.