Meta-search, mini differences

by Charlie Leocha on March 27, 2005

Remember when a fare search began — and pretty much ended — with a query of Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz?

Ah, those were the good old days.

Today there’s new breed of travel site, the metasearch engine. In some
cases, they query more than a hundred travel sites in an attempt to offer a listing of the lowest airfares and hotel and rental car rates.

Metasearchers scour sites for the best prices and then list the results in
ways that help you make a more informed buying decision. For these sites,
airfares are displayed according to provider, airline, price, number of
stops, departure times and return times.

There are four major travel metasearch engines at the moment: Kayak,
associated with AOL; Farechase, part of Yahoo; Sidestep, one of the original
metasearchers; and Mobissimo, a newcomer with European roots.

A site such as itasoftware.com might be considered an airfare metasearcher,
however it fills a special niche as an airline pricing information site
without direct connections to any point of sale. The ITA Software business
model is focused on developing airfare searches for airlines and others,
such as Orbitz, on their Web sites.

Each of the major travel metasearch engines has its own personality. But
each turns up different bargains and each has a different set of commercial
partners which color the results.

For example, a recent metasearch test delivered the identical airline with a
“lowest fare” for travel between Boston and Reno. Mobissimo, Farechase and
Sidestep, as well as ITASoftware, all found the same $419 fare on an America
West flight.

The biggest differences in the Web sites came with their listings of
airfares following their “lowest fare” displays. Airfares are all over the
place depending on the provider associated with the metasearch engine.

Sidestep seems to connect to Orbitz more than any other travel site and
showed its lowest fares using multiple airlines. Mobissimo mostly hooks up
with Cheaptickets and Onetravel. Kayak is almost a Onetravel shell with a
few other airfares thrown in for good measure. Farechase listed American
Airlines flights that didn’t show up on any other search engine.

Rental cars searches results were identical with Mobissimo and Sidestep.
However, Kayak doesn’t have an operational metasearch function and Farechase
doesn’t support the Macintosh operating system, which I use.

The hotel metasearch function provides the biggest differential between the
sites – and that difference isn’t much. Searching for Reno hotels Mobissimo
and Kayak listed hotel rates within a buck or two of each other. Sidestep
had some hotels that were as much as 10 percent less expensive than the
other sites. Farechase did not support the Macintosh operating system.

Bottom line: use these search engines as another information source.

Always check the airline sites for even lower prices and additional
incentives such as frequent flier miles, to book locally. Always check with
Southwest and jetBlue — they don’t show up on most of these metasearch
engines.

One other note. I limited my research to domestic flights. There may be even
more differences when international airfares, hotels and rental cars are
considered together with international-based sites. But that is another
column.

For example: A quick check of Opodo.com, a European airfare search engine,
similar to Orbitz, turned up even lower airfares than the metasearch
engines. After converting from British pounds to US dollars, the America
West airfare of $419, including taxes, was on sale for less than $375. Go
figure.

The greatest gift from the metasearch engines is providing a roadmap to
lower airfares and hotel and car rental rates. Their engines point to many
other bargain travel sites and expand anyone’s travel site universe.

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