Air travel search sites were supposed to simplify the problem of finding your way among dozens of flights at dozens of different price points. They only brought up a new problem, though – dozens of air travel search sites and no way of really knowing which one to pick. So what’s the answer? Which travel search site do you go to for the cheapest prices?
Many people have a favored travel site that they believe is the cheapest on the planet. They trust it because they’ve found cheap prices there two or three times. They don’t realize that such favored sites don’t continue to deliver good prices for long. Other people simply give up – they buy their tickets on whatever air travel search site turns up first on their search engine because they believe that they’re all the same.
Both beliefs are wrong, though. In reality, getting the best deal depends on finding the right air travel search site for the specific kind of travel need that you have in mind and the specific services that you require.
If you want the cheapest prices, no matter what
There’s a reason why many people believe all travel sites are the same – if you stick to the major travel sites, they are certainly all nearly the same. To get a significantly cheaper price on anything, you need to stray from the old stalwarts (Travelocity and Expedia, for instance) and look at one of the new ones – Momondo, RouteHappy and so on.
For the cheapest prices, you need to execute a four-step process:
First, you need to check two or three of the biggest names in travel for a baseline price.
Then, you need to try one of the small, new travel sites.
Next, whatever cheap fares you’ve been able to find, you need to check them out on the sites of the airlines themselves.
Finally, you need to check out the sites of airlines like Southwest that don’t show up on air travel search sites. These airlines choose to stay out.
Whatever airline you choose, it’s usually a good idea to do the actual booking on the airline’s own site. They usually have better interfaces that allow you to pick seats, enter reward plan numbers, pay for extra bags and also make any changes necessary.
When you want the best flight, even if it means paying a little bit more
Conventional air travel search sites work strictly to the filters that you set. If you try to sort flight results by price, the site may push the best choices far down the list – like a flight that costs $25 more but that comes with a very short layover. It could instead show you a bunch of flights with longer layovers on top simply because they are $25 cheaper. If you try to sort by flight duration, it may bury that flight under a bunch of very expensive ones with the shortest possible layovers. You can’t get the search engine to show you the best flight options, all things considered.
If you’re looking for such search ability, you should try a site that intelligently sorts results, based on the least hassle involved. Hipmunk and Routehappy both have algorithms that understand what it means when travelers want hassle-free flights that aren’t too expensive. Not only do they sort results based on layover duration, they take factors like airplane model (a Boeing 787 will get listed over a 767), seat size, legroom, number of bathrooms available on the plane and a number of other factors into account.
If you need a domestic ticket on short notice
The best way to get a cheap airline ticket is to book far in advance. Often, though, you need to buy tickets a week or two in advance, no more. What do you do to work down the prices of your tickets then?
Priceline is well-known for its opaque ticket bidding system for hotel rooms. To book a hotel room on Priceline, you simply put in a bid for what you’re willing to pay. It’s up to the hotel whether or not to accept your bid. Since airlines don’t have trouble filling their seats these days, price bidding doesn’t work as well as with hotel rooms. It still does work, though. You should try Priceline’s airline ticket bidding system when you need a ticket on short notice. Putting in a bid that’s 10% or 15% below the cheapest fare that you can find elsewhere often works. As with the opaque hotel booking system, you don’t get to know what airline you get or what departure time the flight is. You only get to specify what the date is. Often, bids are accepted if they are within reason.
If you need to make and hold reservations because your plans aren’t final
Options Away has an interesting concept – if you do want to make reservations to grab a great price right now but aren’t completely sure if you will actually be able to travel, booking on Options Away lets you hold your reservations for up to several weeks. The service is only available on a few domestic US cities at this point. Tickets on this site also cost $25 for $30 more than on other sites.
If your travel plans are flexible
Travel websites have offered special searches for flexible travel plans for years now. These are usually limited to automatic searches a couple of days around your stated travel date, though. They don’t offer much more flexibility. The results they display can be very confusing too. If your travel plans are really flexible – both with your destination and your travel date – you should try using new websites like Adios, GetGoing or Momondo. Google Flight Explorer and Google Flights are good, too. Google Flights is especially fast in the way it processes your searches.
Finally, if you need to book tickets for trips that start and end in places other than North America or Europe
No one site does travel searches well in every part of the world. American sites will usually give you great results for North America and Europe – nowhere else. If you need to book a flight within China or India or Russia, for example, you need to search on Google for the best local travel websites in those countries. If you use an American travel search engine, your tickets are often twice as expensive as they have to be.