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Getting Lost in the Web of Internet Fare Searches

Simultaneous test runs for identical itineraries on selected sites yield very different results. Hint: Be flexible.

June 09, 2002|JANE ENGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My task seemed straightforward: Search Internet sites for the lowest round-trip air fare between LAX and Chicago's Midway Airport departing May 30, returning June 3.

But of course, it wasn't.

I used www.expedia.com and www.travelocity.com and the airline-owned www.orbitz.com, plus some individual airline sites and Sidestep, a program that retrieves low fares on the Internet sites of airlines, consolidators and other sources. (You can download it free at www.sidestep.com.) I performed the searches May 9 within a half-hour of each other.

I'll put aside for the moment who won the race. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

Now you see it, now you don't: That's what happened with a Southwest Airlines $195 fare from LAX to Midway nonstop that I found with Sidestep. When I searched for fares for one person, the $195 ticket was displayed. When I searched for fares for two travelers, it wasn't; instead, a $200 Northwest Airlines fare was the cheapest.

"I've seen this happen every now and again," says Phil Carpenter, vice president of marketing for Sidestep. There's no way to know what was going on, he concedes, because fares may change minute by minute under the complex "yield management" system that many airlines use to raise prices as demand rises. But he speculates that the $195 seat was the last one available at that rate on that flight.

"Yield management seems to be more of a black art than science," he says.

Lesson: Different variables create different results. Furthermore, if you see a fare you like, book it because it may not be there two minutes hence. (This creates difficulty for readers of The Times' Travel section's weekly "Lowest Air Fares" chart, which is compiled several days before the Sunday paper arrives on the doorstep. Many low fares may be sold out by then.)

Giving it another try, I enlisted my colleagues May 24 to search for the lowest round-trip fares between LAX and New York's JFK, departing June 22 and returning June 29. To the sites above we added www.trip.com and www.hotwire.com, an airline-owned site that displays fares without specifying the airline and exact times until after you make the nonrefundable booking. We did all our searches within half an hour.

We turned up more aberrations and frustrations. A sampling:

The special fare that wasn't there: I saw a $258 round-trip LAX-JFK fare under "Fare Sales by City" on America West's site, www.americawest.com. I could click on the price or on another button called "Book It!" When I clicked on "Book It!" and chose my flights from a list the site generated, the fare was $373.02. When I clicked on "$258RT," the site sent me to a page where no such fare was listed.

America West spokeswoman Patty Nowack says the $258 figure indicates that fares start at $258, but that low price may not be available on all flights. "I know it's a pretty arcane system," Nowack says. She did not know why the "$258RT" link didn't work.

Lesson: Things aren't always what they seem, so don't do the low-fare celebratory dance until you've booked it.

It's all a matter of time: Southwest, known for low fares, is also known for withholding its fares from other Internet sites. Had I relied on Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity in my LAX-Chicago search, I would have missed what was apparently the cheapest flight, Southwest's; only Sidestep showed me Southwest fares.

But I was surprised that in the LAX-JFK search, America West, at under $300, showed up as the low fare on Expedia, Sidestep and Trip .com but not on Orbitz, where the lowest fare was $390 (using American and United), or Travelocity, where the lowest fare was $361.42 using a "name-brand airline" that it didn't identify.

Orbitz spokeswoman Carol Jouzaitis says the America West fare probably failed to show up because we entered specific flight times (10 a.m. outbound, 3 p.m. return) in our search. In that case, Orbitz searches flights two hours before and after the specified times. At 1:55 p.m., the America West departure was outside that time window. It was a similar story at Travelocity, where we specified "within two hours" on the departure. Of course, we had entered the same flight times on Expedia and Trip.com--and we got the America West fare. These two sites, plus Sidestep, appeared to cast a wider net when times were entered.

Jouzaitis suggests customers search for "anytime" or use the default settings of the sites to increase the chance of getting a 24-hour search of options. "Once you put in times, we're searching different stuff because we seem to be using different assumptions," she says of the travel sites.

Adding to the confusion, each Internet site has its own search paths: some by city, some by airport, some by hour, some by general time of day. You can't make exactly comparable searches.

Lesson: If you're looking for the lowest fare, be as flexible on your times (and even departure and arrival cities) as the site allows.

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