Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Informal, unscientific survey of airfare search engines

Earlier today I was browsing my feeds and came across a mention of a new airfare search engine called Farecast. This is an intriguing application that tracks the lowest available price for a variety a possible trips across lots of airlines, then uses that information to predict where prices are headed over the next seven days. This is a pretty tempting concept, especially compared with the prospect of remembering all the arcane timing advice for getting cheap tickets (Wednesday nights, in the first week of the month, except during a neap tide or a when Sputnik is in Saggitarius, etc etc...). The site itself is really slick, very Web 2.0-ish with autocompletion, pretty graphing, nifty popup calendars, the whole nine yards (of code).

Every Thanksgiving I make the trek back to the ancestral homestead in Wisconsin, because we all know that Mom makes the best mashed potatoes (aw crap, I hope Wendy doesn't read that... :). Normally I don't book this early, but I curiosity got the better of me, so I thought I'd test it out with my usual itinerary which has proven the cheapest over the years - leave early on Thanksgiving day, come back midafternoon on Sunday. 

I ran that search on Farecast and the lowest fare came up as FIVE HUNDRED BUCKS?! Usually I can find something in the $200-300 range, so that's a high number. Not only that, but their history graph shows that it's going up.

That spooked me a bit, so I sauntered over to Sidestep, another meta-search engine that claims to search a number of airline websites plus some resellers like Orbitz. They've also got a pretty click website, though not quite as nice as Farecast. Their fares were better, at around $380 for a flight that would get me there in time for turkey, but still a bit harsh.

So then I went to my old standby, Travelocity. I've been using them for years, ever since an incredibly positive customer service experience*. Their site is a decidedly old-fashioned by today's terms, meaning it's probably 3-4 years old. But their price? $220, about 2/3 the cost of the next closest competitor, less than half of the hot new site. Even better, the flight is on Midwest Airlines (formerly Midwest Express), an airline based out of Milwaukee with nearly impeccable timeliness and pretty good inflight cookies. Suffice to say I like flying them a lot better than United or Delta.

Since I had already gone this far, I checked in with Orbitz ($294) and Midwest Airlines' own site ($500). Advantage, Travelocity. Incidentally, many of my current coworkers are from Galileo, the company behind Orbitz. Come on guys, $294? That's the best you can do? I guess that explains all those bugs in the Platform code... :)


These results amaze me. I never expected that much variation between the different sites, and I certainly never guessed that Travelocity would actually outprice Midwest on their own flights. I guess that annoying little gnome knows how to find good prices, even if he can't make a pretty website to save his stocking cap.

Since I'm on the topic, I'd also like to relate the positive customer service experience I alluded to earlier. A few years back I was booking a flight for a long weekend, I don't remember which one exactly. After much messing about I finally chose a flight, clicked through all the clickthroughs, saved the confirmation and walked away. 20 minutes later something was nagging at me, so I looked at the confirmation and realized I had booked the right days but the wrong month. It was a totally boneheaded mistake, with nobody to blame but myself. Nonetheless, I called up Travelocity customer service, hoping I could change the ticket without paying too much. To my everlasting surprise, the rep didn't bat an eye, he just worked some systems magic to make the whole thing just disappear. Not a ticket transfer, not a refund, nothing ever charged my credit card. Reservation, what reservation, nobody knows anything about any reservation. At that point I could've booked somewhere else or not at all. But you've got to reward good service, so I've booked every single flight through them for the last 3 years or so. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they have the best prices too.


PS, Farecast is a pretty good name, but am I the only one that thinks FareBetter.com or FareWell.com would be better? Well, except for the fact that Farewell.com is owned by a casket manufacturer.

1 comment:

nicki0731 said...

Nice plug for both travelocity and midwest airlines. My experience with travelocity has always been positive for airline and hotel reservations (you are far from alone in the "boneheaded mistake" category), and I adore the Gnome commercials. (Yep I feed right into your "appearances win elections" view on the other post). Love the hometown airline, but they converted to "saver service" for tourist destinations (i.e. Denver) and I did not like having to sit 3 across on my last flight out there. (Not to mention I got a moral lecture from the people sitting next to me) The yummy cookies really saved them on that! I would gladly pay more (though certainly not $500!) to have the option of flying signature service to all their destinations.