The capabilities available to travelers through travel Web sites are approaching those available to travel agents and airline gate agents using the most powerful global distribution systems (GDS), such as Sabre, Worldspan and Amadeus. ExpertFlyer.com, a recent comer to the consumer field, is the most powerful online search tool yet.
ExpertFlyer is not a booking site. Rather, it provides air travel intelligence, with up-to-the-minute information, for everything from fares to flight availability to seating — and it does so for almost every major airline in the world.
Here are some of its features.
* Fares. ExpertFlyer outlines all published fares for both one-way and round-trip travel between city pairs. It also explains all the fare rules and requirements.
* Flight availability. The Web site displays up-to-the-minute flight availability, detailing the number of empty seats on each flight. This is a very useful capability. When weather is moving in or delays are mounting, knowing the availability of seats on earlier flights gives travelers a chance to change their flights before getting stranded.
* Seat maps. Flight availability is also detailed by class of service in seat maps for each flight. This capability is especially useful for frequent business travelers, who want to know whether they can get a seat in their accustomed section and whether they have any chance of a frequent-flier upgrade.
* Frequent-flier seats and upgrades. One of the best things about ExpertFlyer is its information on frequent-flier seats. Now travelers holding frequent-flier miles on cooperating airlines can see all the flights on a given day that still have frequent-flier seats available. Airlines usually release their frequent-flier seats 11 months in advance, and being able to see them immediately is like manna from heaven for mileage junkies, especially for those coveted trans-Atlantic and Hawaii flights. This feature depends on airlines releasing their frequent-flier information, of course. So far, American Airlines has opened its program to ExpertFlyer. Air Canada, Air France, Air Tahiti Nui and Qantas provide their basic first-class, business and coach awards. Frontier lists its available coach awards. Others (including Delta and Northwest) provide more limited information about the availability of elite-level upgrades.
* Alerts. ExpertFlyer can also alert frequent fliers of changes in seat availability and upgrade availability on flights the travelers have chosen to track. Notifications can be sent to the traveler’s e-mail, PDA or cell phone.
ExpertFlyer’s system is not totally intuitive to use, and the airlines’ labyrinthine fare structures complicate every search (a quick check of airfares showed no fewer than 32 fares and as many as 36 fares available from each airline). But frequent travelers can quickly learn how to take advantage of the wealth of GDS-level information that can be mined from the Web site by using ExpertFlyer’s “EduGuide.”
ExpertFlyer.com is a subscription-based service. The basic service, priced at $4.99 a month, includes 250 queries each month. It provides flight availability for up to three airlines at one time and allows travelers to plug in various fare categories. The basic package also shows flight status and seat maps for more than 100 airlines, as well as frequent-flier and upgrade information for participating airlines. The premium service, priced at $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year, includes unlimited queries and all the above services, along with fare information and rules, enhanced flight availability, flight alerts and query storage.