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Working the Web to Save on Airfare
By Catherine | | No Comments

Any time my family wants to fly anywhere it’s a four-ticket expense, so it pays to sleuth around the internet to find the best price. Even a savings of $25 times four adds up to $100 I’d rather spend on something else, so it’s worth my time to consult a few sources to make sure I’m getting a good deal.

The online travel industry is convoluted to say the least. The price for the same seat on the same airline can vary depending on who you book through. Airlines may tinker with their fares several times a day, making it challenging for us consumers to keep up with the fluctuations. Seat sales and unadvertised specials are released sporadically and, like the volatile stock market, it’s hard to know when is the optimum time to buy in.

Sometimes a simple change of departure date can make a big difference in the bottom-line, but it’s time-consuming to check all the permutations. Taxes/fees/surcharges aren’t necessarily disclosed until the final purchasing step making it difficult to compare bottom-line prices from site to site.

There really isn’t a one-stop web shop that clearly tells you all you need to know to get the lowest fare out there for your family. However, there are a few emerging sites that are trying to be that “killer app” for travel.

If you’re still just consulting the old-school big name consolidators like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz (all of which charge a small booking fee), it’s time to introduce you to some new websites, widgets and tools that may make your quest for the best airfare easier.

Aggregators
Aggregators are meta-search engines that comb many different travel websites, sort them by price and then link you directly to the source if you want to book. You often have to input your information again at this step, which is a pain, but what are a few extra keystrokes when it comes to saving money?

The king of the aggregators is Kayak and its recently merged sister-site SideStep, which consults over 140 different sites (airlines, hotels, rental cars, travel agencies, cruise companies, consolidators etc.) cutting down on your need to manually shop-around. This is usually my first stop when I’m starting to research what’s out there at a given time. It helps me hone in on a realistic baseline price range for what I’m after, and I often make my final booking through it. The downside is they don’t include some of the charter or budget airlines (like Southwest and Raynair), and don’t necessarily scrape the latest seat sales so you might be missing out on some key options.

Mobissimo is another good aggregator that mines a few more international travel sites than some of the US-centric search engines, but you may be faced with foreign language and currency conversion issues that make it hard to digest and compare results.

Comparison Search Engines
Launched just this month is BookingBuddy, which lets you search and compare results from a network of big-name aggregators and consolidators plus a few obscure travel sites. It even includes budget Southwest, which is not included in most of the other sites. You have to select each search engine/website one at a time, but BookingBuddy saves you a few clicks as you only have to type in date and destination information once to look through multiple travel sites of your choosing.

FareCompare is chock-full of useful information and cool features to help you tap into airfare bargains. For those of us flexible on when we travel, you can simply enter a departure point/destination and it’ll tell you upfront which month has the cheapest fares. It’s easy to scan through to find the best price in other months, too – I love looking at a calendar-view of price options to pinpoint the best day for the best deal. You can set all sorts of filters to hone in on the criteria that are important to you (non-stop flights, nearby airports etc.). They’ve recently gone into partnership with ITA Software, which may make them a big player in the travel space.

Other Web 2.0 Travel Tools
2008 Webby Award winning Live Search Farecast is one of the more useful travel sites for cost-conscious travelers. It analyzes historical pricing trends on flights and hotels to predict when a deal really is a deal, and advises you to book or wait accordingly. You can view pricing information on multiple destinations and dates by graph, map or grid and get a real education on the ups and downs of the industry (great for flexible travelers). It’s worth tapping into this predictor site if you need a boost of confidence that the deal you’re about to book is likely to be as good as it gets.

Airfare Watchdog’s claim to fame is that they often unearth unadvertised deals that the other search engines miss. They track special “web only” fares on airline sites plus promo code airfares to get the scoop on cheap flights. They also comb some of the smaller regional airports, which may save you some cash if you’re open to that. For those of you jaded by technology, human fare checkers even verify seat availability by hand. One of their coolest features is you can set email or RSS alerts to tell you when prices drop to a particular destination – their motto “When fares are low, we’ll let you know”.

Yapta, an acronym for Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant, is another fare watcher that alerts you when prices goes down – but they take it a step further. If a fare drops on a ticket you’ve already purchased, they will help you get the airline to reimburse you the difference or provide you with a voucher for future travel. It’ll also track flights based on a threshold of what you want to pay and then sends you alerts when it finds something within those parameters.

Yapta is a relatively new player on the scene and currently they only cover Alaska Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways. Keep an eye on this one, though, as they’re working on expanded coverage and new features all the time. They’ve recently launched a widget that will alert you when frequent-flyer award seats become available on a flight you are tracking – something that is notoriously hard to figure out.




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