If you do any sort of traveling, either for business or pleasure, chances are you've found yourself at one of the mainstream travel sites, such as Expedia, or the Web site of an airline, hotel, or rental car company. Increasingly, however, you'll find the best deals only through a lot of legwork or, if you don't mind living on the edge a bit, by using some of the newer travel aggregation services that are available.
Truth be told, I'm a creature of habit. Just as I often go to Amazon.com to purchase books or electronics without really comparing prices elsewhere, I find myself mindlessly navigating to Expedia when it's time to book a flight. This year, however, I've been trying to make a concentrated effort to find the best prices. And I've been amazed to discover what's out there.
Consider a typical example. I often travel from Boston to Seattle for work, and in fact I've got to be out there the week of May 22 for Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC). Browsing my old standby Expedia, I see I've got options starting at $389 roundtrip, assuming I don't mind making a stop in Chicago. (Nonstop flights start at $453.) Even without leaving Expedia, it's possible to save some money, especially if my dates are flexible. Using Expedia's flexible flight tool, I can find flights to Seattle for as little as $255. Those particular dates won't work in my case, but if this were a vacation, I might change the dates a bit to save a lot of money.
Incidentally, some airlines offer similar tools for finding the best prices. For example, we recently flew Aer Lingus to Ireland. That airline offers a nice calendar grid with prices on each date so that you can figure out which days are the cheapest to fly. For our trip, we had to take the kids out of school for a day after their school vacation ended, but we saved hundreds of dollars.
New travel-aggregation sites are starting to come on strong. These sites search a variety of other travel sites to find the best prices. Kayak is a good example. When I entered my Seattle dates (as I did in the Expedia example above), I found a slightly cheaper flight—$369—that stops at Dulles in Washington D.C. However, Kayak can't sell you tickets like Expedia can. To book the Seattle flight, I'd have to visit United Airlines' Web site, because in this case United was the airline with lowest fare. When you connect to United through Kayak, however, a page is loaded on which you can buy the ticket. You don't have to perform the search again.
The latest innovation in travel searches, however, comes from Yahoo, which just integrated its FareChase travel-aggregation service into Yahoo Search and the Yahoo Travel subsite. What does this mean? First, you can now search for flights directly from Yahoo.com. Second, Yahoo is now officially in the travel-aggregation business. Rather than relying on a site such as Kayak, you can visit the trusted Yahoo destination, which offers hotels, cars, vacations, cruises, and other deals in addition to just flights. In other words, Yahoo is the full meal deal.
Let's see how the new Yahoo FareChase fares (ahem) with my Seattle flight. Like Kayak, Yahoo searches a wide number of travel sites to find the best prices. However, it offers additional perks. As you're typing in the name of the cities you're traveling to and from, for example, Yahoo offers auto-completion options to save you typing, which is a nice touch. Also, it offers to check nearby alternative airports, which can often snag you great deals. Your mileage with this feature will vary depending on where you live, but in the Boston area, we can also quickly get to airports in Providence, Rhode Island, and Manchester, New Hampshire, and these airports often offer lower-cost flights.
As it turns out, FareChase offers the same United flight for $10 more than Kayak ($376), and you'd have to buy the ticket through Orbitz, an online travel site. However, FareChase can also add a hotel booking but not, curiously, a car rental. I assume that functionality is coming. (By comparison, Kayak offers hotel and car rentals in addition to flights.)
Another option is a travel-auction site such as Priceline. At such a site, you pick flights, times, and other options, then see what prices you come up with, just like any other travel site. Or, you can name your price and see whether you get any takers. With the latter option, you won't know where the connections are unless someone accepts your price, and international flights can occur any time within the dates you specify. In some ways, it's like playing the lottery.
To test Priceline, I fell back to my old Seattle trip. The Priceline Web site is pretty barebones: You don't get nice pop-up calendars for picking dates; instead, you have to navigate separate drop-down lists for the month, day, and year of both your departure and arrival dates. Like travel-aggregation services, Priceline searches a variety of sources before returning a list of possibilities. My cheapest Priceline fare was $373 and, yes, it was that same United flight.
However, I could also try the Name Your Own price option, which purportedly saves you as much as 40 percent. For the flight I wanted, I would face a maximum of one connection each way, with a layover of three hours or less. The flight could start between 6am and 10pm. The cost? $323. To find out exactly which flights I'd be getting, however, I'd have to book them first. The question, of course, is, "Do I feel lucky?"
What Else Is Out There?
I'm not much of a gambler, so I probably won't be going the Priceline route, but I could see how it could be popular with others. Still, every service I tried was cheaper than Expedia. And that tells me that I need to pay more attention to the services that are out there if I'd like to save some money. And who doesn't want to save money?