Why you sometimes need to play travel agent
By George Hobica
It's a dirty little secret in the airfare search business, but consumers around the world waste millions of their hard earned dollars by overspending on airfare because current airfare search technology is far from perfect. We were reminded of this again today when we noticed a classic fare war between American and United on routes from each others' hubs (Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Washington) to Honolulu (both airlines reduced fares to around $420 round-trip including tax, with virtually no restrictions--no minimum stay, no advance purchase, travel over a 330-day period).
But what if you actually wanted to go to Kona, Hawaii, rather than Honolulu, from, say, Miami? Well, all the usual airfare search suspects would have told you that the cheapest way to get there would cost you $688 round-trip including tax (we used travel dates in October in our sample query). Savvy traveler that you are, you know that doesn't make sense. Surely it doesn't cost $268 to travel round-trip inter-island.
Trouble is, many, if not most, consumers aren't as savvy as you are, and they're going to book that fare. Fact is, you can fly between Honolulu and Kona almost year round for $150 round-trip including tax on two airlines (and local residents know that there are even cheaper deals available, at least for Hawaiian residents). So most people (calculators please!) end up paying $118 more than they should. If you're a family of four or a group, that price difference can add up.
The issue here is that no current airfare search technology (and that includes Kayak, Travelocity, Orbitz, you name it) can figure out fares this way, and there are thousands of route combinations where buying two separate fares will save you money, sometimes much more than $118.
Flying from New York to Eleuthera? Try JetBlue to Nassau and then Nassau to Governors Harbour on Bahamasair and you might save hundreds. Flying to Asia? You might find a web-only deal on Singaporeair.com to Singapore and then hop on a next-to-nothing flight to Phuket via AirAsia.com (at this writing, flights from Singapore to Thailand are running 49 Singapore dollars, or about $36 USD).
The good news is that airfare geeks are working on this and other problems. A company called Vayant Travel Technologies, which is billing itself as ITA Software "plus", claims that there is a "better way to search for and price itineraries, and [we] have found it". And since ITA Software, along with ATPCO, powers most airfare search in North America and indeed many other regions, it's time someone took airfare search to the next level and showed consumers how to save some serious money.
We haven't had a chance to test drive this new technology but we do wish them luck and hope they live up to their potential. Meanwhile, you'll have to use your noggin when it hits you that an airfare you see just doesn't make sense, and make sure you're getting the lowest fares available by combining flights on different airlines. That's what a good travel agent used to do, but the internet has put many of them out of business. If you have one, grapple him or her to thy soul with hoops of steel.