In the search to score the cheapest airfare, you may not be getting the full story. Depending on your search site of choice, your results might be coming up a little short, with several airlines and OTA (online travel agencies) not seeing eye to eye. Preferring that customers purchase directly on their websites, several carriers have gone as far as refusing third- party access to their inventory and prohibiting the posting of airfares. Most notably, JetBlue pulled fares from search engine Vayama (among others) in 2017, and Delta once cut the cord on the popular app Hopper.
Of course, one airline in particular has always played this game. As the original low-cost carrier, Southwest has continually directed customers straight to their website for tickets. We've done a deeper dive into why other sites don't show Southwest fares here. The short story is they don't' allow any "automatic device, program, or algorithm" to monitor their airfares, essentially ruling out third-party scraper sites. So, what's in it for the airlines to limit which booking sites they can display airfares on?
Why Do Airlines Block Listings on Certain Flight Search Sites?
There are a handful of reasons why airlines prefer customers to purchase directly on their dedicated websites. This way, they can navigate the booking process by guiding customers through upsells and ancillary add-ons like seat selection and mileage boosters, capped off with profitable packages from hotel and car rental affiliates. That keeps revenue flowing in house instead of elsewhere when passengers shop for those components to complete their trip.
Another reason an airline might choose not to list on a site is if the tightrope between search exposure isn’t financially worth the fees and commission that they’re on the hook from to the OTA. That's why you might notice several aggregators sneakily adding booking fees or service charges so they can reduce ticket sale expenses and avoid spats with the airlines threatening to cut listings, often at added cost to the consumer.
Which Airlines Are Exclude from Popular Booking Sites?
- American Airlines: Available on all search sites
- Delta Air Lines: Excluded from Cheapair, CheapOair, TripAdvisor
- United Airlines: Available on all search sites
- Southwest: Tickets only available for purchase on the Southwest website (or over phone)
- Alaska: Available on all search sites
- JetBlue: Excluded from Vayama, SmartFares, MyFlightSearch
- Hawaiian: Available on all search sites
- Frontier: Available on all search sites, but many promotions only bookable on Frontier’s website.
- Spirit: Available on all search sites, but many promotions only bookable on Spirit’s website
- Allegiant: Excluded from Vayama, Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, MyFlightSearch, Cheapair, CheapOair, OneTravel, and others
Which Airlines Don’t Show up on Aggregator Sites?
Sites like Google Flights, Kayak, and Skyscanner fall in the bucket of aggregator sites, meaning they search across a broad platform of OTAs alongside the airline’s homepages. They generally do not issue tickets themselves, unlike Expedia and Priceline.
Aggregator sites are more practical in nature (although they do get commissions) and focus on pulling in as many booking options as possible, which leaves very few airlines out of the search results. While generally more comprehensive, they aren't without fault. Google Flights, for example, will often miss fares from AeroMexico, Turkish, Royal Jordanian, China Eastern, and other carriers, by listing them merely as “Visit site for price.” Click and you often find phantom tickets no longer bookable. So, while they are a great tool to kick off your fare searches, they aren’t the end all be all.
As with anything purchased online, shop around because airfares change daily, and the aggregator site you’re searching might pull up old or incomplete flight info.
Is It Better to Buy Directly with the Airline or an Online Travel Agency?
If flying domestically, purchasing a flight directly with the airline will likely be your best bet. Tickets are almost always easier to change, cancel, or get refunded when dealing with the airline instead of an intermediary third-party seller. In addition to those factors, airline sites offer promotions and discount deals that won't appear on OTAs like Frontier's penny fares and Spirit's weekly promo code deals that we update nearly daily here.
But if you're in the market for an international itinerary, especially one that includes partner airlines and codeshares, a quick search on a few OTAs might retrieve better results. Industry agreements among airlines worldwide can create some funky fare pricing that doesn’t always reflect on the airline’s website. Online travel agencies may also display fares in the local currency, which, depending on the exchange rate at the time, may offer more savings than directly booking with the carrier. Just remember to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees when purchasing those.
Are there any third-party search sites that you have noticed that don't list specific airlines? Let us know, so we can add them to the list!