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Finding the Lowest Fare - Internet booking services promise a lot, but do they deliver?

'A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client' is a common saying.

But what about people that book their own travel through the internet - surely that is a sensible thing, due to websites designed to make it simple for people to make informed choices?

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Airfare Wars - Internet vs Travel Agencies

Where is the best place to find the best fares?

The concept of 'the lowest fare' is an unprovable myth, and the process to track down such a fare would take more hours of your time than the ultimate savings would justify.



'I bought my ticket cheaper on the internet' has become a common catch-cry amongst travelers.

But, how does a person ever know, for sure, that they truly did pay the lowest price for the itinerary that they wanted? They don't!

This article helps boost your understanding of these complicated issues.


How do you know you've found the lowest fare?

People booking their own travel must surely be always troubled by the thought that if they had checked another website, or tried a different routing, or different airline, then perhaps they would have found a lower fare.

To truly find the very best possible fare, it is necessary to do the same things that a travel agent would do. Here are fourteen (!) different things to consider when finding the 'lowest fare'. A travel agent can, should, and, depending on the preferences of their client, usually does evaluate all of these things in only a few short minutes. If you want to be your own travel agent, then here are some of the things you need to understand and appreciate in order to feel comfortable that the fares you are buying are likely to be good (if not best) value and most suitable for you.

The good news is that not all of these factors apply to every itinerary, but you should keep them in mind every time you evaluate travel and ticket options. The bad news is that internet 'services' provide very little help in determining the answers to many of these potentially money saving factors.

While 'state of the art' is changing all the time (for both internet services and also for progressive travel agencies, too!), at the time of writing this column, the advantage still lies with travel agencies.

1. Different airline for entire itinerary

It goes without saying that some airlines (eg United, American) are generally more expensive than other airlines (eg Southwest, Jet Blue). But unexpected variations in price can occur even between the major 'full fare' airlines. If you're not trapped into only one frequent flier program, you need to check all airlines that fly to where you want to go (and how do you even know what all the airlines are that fly that route - the airline you've never heard of before probably has the lowest fare!).

2. Different airlines for different parts of the itinerary

Usually airlines sell roundtrip tickets for much less money than two oneway tickets, but this is not always the case. And, if you are on an itinerary with more than two flights, you then may find yourself better off to combine some flights with one airline with other flights from another airline. How many thousands of different combinations of different airlines are you going to research through different websites to be sure you've got the best combination of fares for each flight segment?

3. Different time of day

Many airfares depend on the time of day of the flight you take. Maybe it is cheaper to take a flight at 6.59am than at 7.01am (or vice versa!). You need to look at the rules of the published fares to see what types of time of day application may exist, and then try building itineraries around the cheapest times of day (assuming that availability exists at these times and on the airlines you select). These time of day fares can also vary from airline to airline, and destination to destination!

4. Different day of week outbound and/or inbound

Did you know that some days of the week are cheaper days to travel on than other days? But the days which are cheap and expensive also vary depending on the destination (and sometimes the airline) - there could be as much as $60 or more difference in airfare depending on the days you select.

5. Different length of stay

Just about everyone knows that 'stay over a Saturday night' is usually a requirement for the cheapest fares (although not if you're going to Las Vegas!), but did you know that there are often other length of stay rules as well - indeed, sometimes it is cheaper to stay longer (due to a minimum stay requirement), but sometimes also it is cheaper to stay a shorter time (due to a maximum stay requirement)!

6. Positioning Flights

Sometimes airlines operate only one or two flights a week between certain cities (and perhaps in one direction only). These are often referred to as 'positioning flights' and can sometimes be sold at very low prices. But because they are rare flights, they probably will not appear in your first or second fare search, and you might not even know that the airline operates service to where you want to go. You need some way to check for special positioning flight deals.

7. Completely different travel dates

Maybe if you change your travels to a week earlier or later, you will switch to a different airfare season - on international tickets this could save you as much as $300 or more per ticket. Most of the internet services will not tell you 'hey, if you change your dates by a week (or two) you can save $300'. You'll need to instead experiment with completely different travel dates to try and see if you can detect a change in season. Oh - one other thing. Different airlines often have slightly different seasons - perhaps only a day or two different, but perhaps two weeks different! So you need to do the entire 'every different airline' exercise to check for seasonality as well!

8. Different Airports

We all know that, eg, there are three major (and several more not so major) airports that serve New York; many other cities also have multiple airports serving them. Some of the better internet sites will even search some of these other airports as well as the one you specify. But can you be sure that, perhaps, White Plains was also considered as one of the nearby airports? And, if you're looking at travel to or from Los Angeles, remember that some airlines fly to some airports and not to others - for example, Jet Blue flies to Long Beach airport. You can sometimes save big money by changing airports - any or all of the four or more airports you'll fly in and out of in a typical return trip ticket. But you'll also have to make sure that the fare you're looking at permits 'open jaws' or considers the different airports you are using to be commonly located.

9. Different routing

It is quite common that nonstop flights will be more expensive than direct flights, which in turn can sometimes also be more expensive than flights with a change of service on the way (not to be confused with 'change of gauge'!). And often you might find that service through a less popular hub is cheaper than service through a major hub. How are you going to check out all the different routings and route specific fare options on the internet?

10. Different sequence of stops if multiple stop itinerary

If your travels are taking you to more than one destination, perhaps you can get a cheaper fare by traveling to these destinations in a different order. If it doesn't really matter to you whether you go to Detroit or Chicago first, just so long as you go to both cities, then you should check every possible variation in itineraries. (Note that many web sites can't price multiple stop itineraries!)

11. Split Ticketing

If you are traveling on more than two flights, perhaps it is better to have a fare for one theoretical 'return' ticket and a different ticket for a second theoretical 'return' ticket (note that with a double open jaws type tickets, a 'return' ticket doesn't need to start and finish in the same place, or even have the same mid point in common either!). Sometimes two tickets, each for only part of your total travel, can be cheaper than one ticket for the entire itinerary. And, even if you are just traveling to one destination, you still might have the opportunity to split your ticketing as you travel through a connecting city - for example to travel between Los Angeles and New York, there are probably a dozen or more convenient midway cities where you could change planes (and tickets) - perhaps for a lower fare.

12. Back to back and hidden city ticket loopholes

The crazy system of airfare pricing that the airlines have created for themselves contain some loopholes that they don't want you to know about, and which they claim constitute violations of their air fare tariffs. But if you know about back to back and/or hidden city ticketing, and if you know about the loopholes which the airlines will never and can never close, then you can save huge amounts of money. The chances are your travel agent might know about these - but does the internet site you're visiting also tell you about these opportunities?

13. Unpublished fares

Consolidator fares are still only very rarely found through websites. While primarily involved with getting you discounts on international travel, consolidator fares also apply for travel between most major cities in the US; potentially saving you huge amounts compared to unrestricted coach class fares. If you are stuck with having to pay a very high fare to an airline (eg due to no advance purchase or no Saturday night stay) then a travel agent with good consolidator contacts can save you more than just about any website.

14. Too Low a Fare

Yes, there can be such a thing as too low a fare! If there is a chance that you might need to make changes to your ticket, maybe you are better advised to buy a less restricted ticket that is easier to change in the future. You need to understand the restrictions on any given fare, and also how much more (or how little more!) it might cost to get a more flexible fare.

There is no such thing as the 'Lowest Fare'!

You might think, after reviewing these fourteen issues above, that finding the 'lowest' airfare is impossibly difficult. The truth is even worse - it is plain impossible!

The airlines themselves make changes to their available fares literally every second, and, of course, tickets are being sold (and sometimes cancelled) every second as well. Price the same itinerary twice in a row and you might get two very different prices, because the 'truth has changed' in the split second between the first and second fare quote.

It has been common for everyone to blame travel agents for 'not finding the lowest fare' (but how does anyone know, for sure, what the lowest fare is?); this is not fair. Interestingly, similar studies are now finding broad differences in fare pricing in websites as well! Blame the airlines for making it impossible to reliably know, from one minute to the next, what the lowest fare is.

Finding the lowest fare is an impossible quest that can soak up hours and hours of research and frustration on your part. The time cost to you in finding a fare that may or may not be lower almost certainly exceeds the savings that may eventuate. But if you're insistent on finding the lowest fare, yourself, then follow the fourteen steps above and you'll be sure to get close to the best fare possible!

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Originally published 14 Jun 2002, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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