Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 4 – flight search engines, the ugly, the good and the bad

In my first post on booking flights online I said you could never trust a single search engine for your flights, not even those who purport to search all the airlines. You do better making more searches.

In this fourth post in the series I want to give another example of how badly some search engines can get it wrong (“the ugly”) and then talk about some specific good and bad points of the various search engines available.

Auckland to Buenos Aires – going through London is ugly

Say you’ve decided to fill your late summer with delicious cuts of meat and implausibly cheesy pizza by heading from your home in Auckland to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Good call. If you jump on kayak.com, a search engine that purports to search all the airlines (and all the other search engines) you’ll be recommended this…

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Two problems with this fare:

  1. It’s British Airways, via Hong Kong and London! That’s an unnecessary trip to a whole other hemisphere and almost three times longer than the most geographically direct route.
  2. Trips across the South Pacific are seldom cheap (there’s very limited competition), but kayak is asking you to pay about $500USD more than if you went ahead and searched directly with Lan Airlines, or expedia.co.nz, for that matter.

Following the advice from my first post would have yielded you that saving. If you went further, per my third post, and looked to break the fare at intermediate stops, in this case Tahiti, you’d probably end up with further savings.

The strengths of different searchers

Much as I caution against relying on one search engine they are unavoidable tools of the trade. Knowing how to get the most of them means knowing which have particular strengths. And that’s the main purpose of this post. There are a range of search options that are fine, but do nothing special (orbitz, priceline, expedia, edreams), so I’ve left them out.

  • Kayak is generally pretty good. It has a nice feature called ‘hacker fares’ where it will suggest different airlines for different legs of your trip if that turns up a cheaper fare. It also uses an algorithm that tells you how likely the fare you are looking at is to increase, though I am pretty sure that’s rubbish. Sometimes, though, it really lets you down, like in the example above.
  • Skyscanner is generally pretty good too, and it makes less outright mistakes than kayak. One feature that is especially neat if you can search a country or even “everywhere” as your destination. This is great when you’re looking for ideas. It may be the closest thing you get to the dream we all have of walking into an airport, picking a flight from the departures board and buying a ticket. Skyscanner’s Achilles heal is that you can’t search multi-stop flights.
  • ITA Matrix is google’s product. It has the best search functionality. You can search date ranges easily and specify you’re happy with a range of airports or cities. This kind of thing is great when you’re planning a holiday and are prepared to be flexible. To get the most out of ITA you need to learn the advanced routing codes. ITA’s downside, and it is a big, bad one, is that you cannot book the fares it finds you. So you end up using it to scan the market, then search for bookable fares elsewhere. You can also try and take the routing codes to some unsuspecting travel agent. In my experience they look at you like you’ve practiced airline voodoo. There’s a 50/50 chance they can actually book the fare to which you point them.
  • Statravel genuinely offers different fares for students, teachers and young people. The different fares have different conditions, and some “youth” age brackets go as high as 32. So if that counts you it is worth a try for long haul travel. Also, for reasons I have never understood, it is the only site I know that bundles multi-stop Virgin Australia domestic trips with fares in and out of Oz.
  • Ebookers is where I often find myself booking. It has no special functionality to speak of but it seems to often offer fares that no other site does. It only quotes in pounds, which is annoying when you’re comparison shopping, but it often converts out as the cheapest option.

Two final cautions. One: always check the fare you find at any of these sites against what the airline offers on its own website. You might be surprised at how much you save. Two: these kinds of search engines take different approaches to bundling baggage fees up in their low cost carrier fares. Always check carefully over what you are actually buying.

We’re probably approaching the end of the online flight booking knowledge I can easily disperse here at this point. But please, ask me anything and I will share what I know.

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