When What You See Is Not What You Get

Q. When booking international flights online, I increasingly find that the airline selling the fare isn’t the airline actually flying the route. For example, I’ll search for a flight on Orbitz.com and see that the lowest fare is sold by Lufthansa but the flight is flown by United. Sometimes we don’t even learn this until we get our confirmation, or the flight is sold by Delta but we’ll be flying on Alitalia. How can we avoid this situation and why do airlines do this in the first place?

A. This is called code sharing, and it’s a way for airlines to share capacity, appear to have larger route networks than they actually do, and increase profits. It can be quite annoying if you have a strong preference for one airline over another. Often, when looking online at Orbitz or other fare comparison websites, you’ll see that two different airlines fly the exact same route at the exact same times but at very different prices. That’s your first clue that this is a code share flight. If you’re unsure what you’re buying, it’s best to call the online travel agency in such cases to ask exactly which airline’s “metal” you’ll be flying on.  To its credit, code sharing can often be a way to save significantly if one airline is selling the flight for considerably less than its code share partner.

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