Joe’s guide to booking flights online – part one of potentially many

The internet has democratised travel booking. That’s great. It has scuttled money grubbing travel agents who get more commission when travelers pay more. It allows the joy of planning your own trip and making your own choices. And it means you can get cheaper airfares.

The process is so simple it gives the impression that you can get yourself the best deal with minimal effort. That’s especially true of sites like expedia.com or kayak.com that give the impression you’re searching all the airlines, or even all the other search sites at once.

The truth is it’s a lot more complicated than the search sites imply. Google can reliably search the whole internet and bring you the most relevant results. But google’s flight booking software can’t guarantee the best deals: iata matrix does some great things, especially if you know the code to use, but it often misses the cheapest option and, critically, you can’t always book the deals you find there.

You don’t need to be an avid airline geek like me to beat the computer. In this post I’ll give you three approaches that you should be using, at a minimum, if you want to ensure you’re getting a good fare. I’ll use an example from my own searching just now to illustrate the point: Fiona and I need to fly from Lahore in Pakistan to Dubai on 10 September, and then on to Tehran in Iran on 18 September. For ease of comparison, all prices are in USD.

As a starting point I searched on kayak.com. Kayak’s good because, as an aggregation search engine, it searches all the other search engines. It also has some useful features. You can stipulate one airport and say you’ll accept others nearby. And, crucially, it will offer you airfares it has stitched together from the offerings of different airlines, even if those airlines have no relationship to one another. It calls these ‘hacker fares’.

As you can see here, Kayak is offering up a ‘hacker fare’ with Kuwait Airlines and Qatar Airways for $645USD. The fares are both one stop. We can out hack that, though.

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Tip one: use a range of aggregator sites

There are lots of websites that purport to search all the airlines (and sometimes all the other search sites) but they often offer up conspicuously different results. They have different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve talked about kayak’s pros already, you’ll see its cons as we beat its fare. Skyscanner is another favourite (especially as they’ve an NZD version). It has a neat feature where you can broaden your search to any city in a given country. But it lacks the ability to search for multi-stop trips, which is rubbish.

If you wanted to cover your bases here you could search on: kayak, skyscanner, orbitz, expedia, ebookers.com and edreams. I’ve made bookings on each at different times. Hipmunk is cute but adds little value.

Sadly none of these sites does much better than kayak on this occasion. Partly that’s cos few of them will book flights for Iran. (What cultural imperialists!). But fear not, we’ve more tricks to play.

For the record iata matrix gives a great looking fare on Qatar Airways, but it isn’t bookable. Useless.

Tip two: search direct with the airlines

When aggregator sites say they search all the airlines for their best fares, that’s a lie. Sometimes airlines will offer fares that are only available through their individual websites and when they do these aren’t captured by an aggregator.

Search for my flights on Emirates’ own site and the fare comes out at $536, more than $100 cheaper. And that’s for nonstop flights at more convenient times on a world class airline. Score.

Don’t know what airlines fly where? Fair enough, you can’t all be as dedicated as I. Take a look on quicktrip.com. It shows the timetables of the airlines for every route including with connections.

This approach is also important because some low cost carriers, like Southwest in the United States, only make their tickets bookable through their own website. And low cost carriers, as the name suggests, tend to be the cheapest.

On competitive routes it could take quite a lot of work to check through all the options (or confidence to know where to look first) but it can be worth it.

Tip three: break up your trip

Search engines aren’t great at thinking outside the box. So they generally don’t think to book your trip as two separate flights. Often times flights will be cheaper when booked together (economies of scale etc.) but not always. And not for my flights.

Simply searching skyscanner.com for the two flights as one ways gets me $456. A further $80 saving on the Emirates option, and a full third less than my original Kayak search. I’ll probably still go with Emirates though, because the cheaper flights have stops each way and they’re not on thrilling carriers (Air Blue and flyDubai) but it’s nice to have the choice.

A more sophisticated version of breaking up your trip is booking flights that stop at an intermediate point that allows you to change airlines. That can mean bigger savings, but it’s more complicated and risky. I might cover in a separate post.

Net result, from three simple approaches I have choices that are both cheaper and better than what my first search yielded. And actually these savings are pretty modest compared to what I have found on other trips.

Paddling about without kayak

What I’ve posted about today are only the very basics. They’re things everyone can do. That doesn’t mean that you should get overconfident and feel that you can always beat the system with these three little tricks.

There are plenty more complicated approaches, many of which rely on a more sophisticated understanding of where airlines fly and why. I might try and cover some things in a later post. And that’s not even to get started on the question of when you should buy or all the other counter-intuitive quirks of the booking system.

I’m always happy to help folks think about their travel. I find flight booking oddly relaxing. And it’s always pleasing to use the (otherwise useless) airline knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years to help people out. Hopefully this post is helpful too.

13 thoughts on “Joe’s guide to booking flights online – part one of potentially many

  1. The IATA matrix search is great if you have a good relationship with a travel agent (I know, old school), or a credit card conscierge service. Jen and I saved around $1000 each on a Joburg-Toronto/Ottawa-DC/NYC-Joburg trip using it, and paid only $30 each for the privilege of sending the routing codes to the local suburban travel agent who then booked it for us at the same fare (after expressing surprise at the voodoo magic of the fares we found).

    1. Yea, on occasion it can be awesome. I’ve done similar once or twice. But often times even the travel agent can’t get the fare.

      I understand the bookability of the fares is what stops google from publicising Iiata matrix as a product.

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