Find the best fare now

by Charlie Leocha on May 14, 2002

Contrary to what folk at Orbitz want you to believe, they do not have a monopoly on the lowest published airfares these days. Expedia and Travelocity and others have come up with various ways to beat even the last-minute published Internet fares provided by the airlines.

Today, with the Web fares and all the hoopla that goes with them, consumers need to be even more careful. Plus, even with careful research the “best” price you have this minute will probably no longer be the “best” by the time you shut down your computer.

It is almost impossible to believe, but the already chaotic world of airline fares has now become even more chaotic. Charting a path through all the competing airfares can drive a bargain hunter wild.

No less an august body than the Association of Corporate Travel Executives chimed in on this theme during their meetings in Montreal. Their research pointed to the Web being the source of the best prices only 10 percent of the time. The normal booking engines had the best prices more than half the time. Naturally, these businesses executives have negotiated fares to take into account as well, but the point is – the Web is not the end all and be all.

Often, the “best fare” found on the Web only has a life span of nanoseconds it seems.

So, what’s a frugal traveler to do?

First travelers all have to assess what they consider as reasonable. There is always a benefit/cost matrix to take into consideration. For instance, is a half-hour more searching through Web fares worth the possible savings of $10? Ask yourself, “What am I looking for?”

If the search is strictly for airfare try this approach. Check the prices on Orbitz, check prices with FareChase.com, then, if you want to, move on to Hotwire. This way you will have an idea of what prices are available on the Web. Also, check with Expedia and with Travelocity to see what special deals they may have negotiated.

I just did this search (May 14th at noon EST) for a roundtrip flight from Boston to Charleston SC. The results were almost identical when searching on FareChase, Expedia and Travelocity – $252 to $266. Orbitz was $5 more expensive per roundtrip because of their handling fee.

I then called US Airways and asked for the AARP fare for that route on those dates and got an airfare of $243. (Of course that is not available to everyone.) Hotwire quoted a fare (stripped of frequent flyer miles and with absolutely no changes permitted) of $222.

Your next decision should be based on your frequent flier memberships, the time of travel and so on. There are few travelers who focus only on price. There is much more to consider than cost.

When travelers begin to take in to consideration hotel costs as well as airfares, the pricing mix gets even more complex.

For hotel and air combination bookings, Web sites such as Expedia can make a big difference. When hotel discounts are combined with airline discounts the savings can be substantial. Expedia is the leader on the Web in creating these packages.

Priceline has just launched a “name your own price” vacation section on their Web site where air can be combined with hotel rooms. Presently, the selection of destinations where the air/hotel combinations are available is limited to New Orleans, Phoenix, Orlando, Disneyland, CA, Ft. Lauderdale, New York, London and San Francisco, but it is sure to expand. Keep checking.

In the meantime, don’t knock yourself out searching for the absolute lowest fare. The few dollars you save are rarely worth the time spent clicking through Web sites. If you are fortunate enough to find a good, talented travel agent, their fee can be a small price to pay to allow someone else to search for your bargains.

The only certainty is that the old airfare and hotel structure that we grew to hate has been replaced by an even more confusing and more capricious market anarchy.

There is no golden rule any more when it comes to best fares for hotels and airlines (or rental cars for that matter). Today we are faced with different rules for each piece of the travel pricing puzzle.

The Web that was once hailed as a tool of disintermediation has become so complex that be are back where we began and worse off, as consumers, for the experience.

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