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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Simplifying the Search for Low Air Fares

May 09, 1999|LAURA BLY

Cybertravelers have two new, potentially powerful tools in the often-baffling search for the lowest air fare.

One, a software program called intelliTRIP.com (http://intellitrip.com), combs simultaneously through multiple airline Web sites to find the best price--including deeply discounted Internet-only fares that aren't posted on travel agencies' central reservations systems.

The other, a "best fare finder" at Travelocity (http://travelocity.com), goes a long way toward eliminating the frustrating bait-and-switch feeling of locating a great deal but not being able to purchase it for the flights you want to take.

Both are aimed at simplifying the arcane airline practice known as "yield management." The system of constantly shifting fares and inventory levels has long been the bane of a bricks-and-mortar travel agent's existence. And with the rapid rise of the Web as a magnet for do-it-yourself travelers, it's one of the biggest reasons most would-be passengers look but don't actually book.

IntelliTRIP.com, an offshoot of a business-oriented travel booking site called TRIP.com, is a Web-based "robot" that promises consumers direct access to inventory from Alaska, America West, American, Delta, Frontier, TWA and US Airways. About a dozen other travel suppliers, including Continental and United plus Alamo, Dollar and Hertz car rental companies and the WorldRes Places to Stay hotel reservation service, are scheduled to come on board over the next few weeks.

While several Web sites compile the growing crop of last-minute weekend fares that can only be booked through the airlines' own sites, intelliTRIP is the first to integrate those deals with the published fares that airlines submit to the central reservations systems used by both real-world travel agencies and online, do-it-yourself incarnations such as TRIP.com and Travelocity.

Once intelliTRIP users register on the site and plug in their desired destination and time of travel, the software sifts through airline inventories and comes back with a list of possibilities. When a fare is selected, travelers are linked directly to the applicable airline for booking. Unlike intelliTRIP, Travelocity doesn't have access to airlines' unpublished fares. But the booking agency's "best fare finder" (also available at Yahoo! Travel, http://www.yahoo.com) does address the hair-pulling problem of getting quickly from fare to flight.

Aimed squarely at flexible bargain hunters, Travelocity's new feature interprets airline pricing rules and restrictions, then uses an interactive, three-month calendar to show which days the lowest fares are available. By contrast, Travelocity's competitors require you to plug in specific dates and times--which, all too often, produce higher prices than the lowest, highly restricted published fare.

I tested the system in late April by heading directly to the "best fare finder" area on Travelocity's home page and entering my route (Los Angeles to New York City) and my preferred dates, leaving Los Angeles on May 14 and returning May 17. Within a minute, I had a choice of several airlines and fares, topped by Tower Air for $274 round trip. Travelocity's calendar confirmed that the fare was available on the days I selected, and I proceeded to make a reservation for $284 (a price that presumably includes airport fees and taxes).

My foray with intelliTRIP didn't go as well. Though registration was a breeze and plugging in my desired destination and times was accomplished quickly, I was surprised that the system spit back fares for only Delta, TWA, America West and Frontier. (American, another intelliTRIP partner, offers multiple daily nonstops between L.A. and New York.)

IntelliTRIP's cheapest alternative for departing L.A. on May 14, returning on May 17, was $344 for nonstop flights on both Delta and TWA. But when I tried to book the fare by linking to Delta's Web site, I was rebuffed with an error message.

The same thing happened when I tried TWA: "BAD REQUEST. Your client sent a request that this server didn't understand."

The battle continues.

Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Comments are welcome at lsbly@aol.com.

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