Ask These Questions to Find the Lowest Air Fares Online

By Hobica, George | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Ask These Questions to Find the Lowest Air Fares Online


Hobica, George, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: George Hobica Daily Herald Correspondent

Whether you like it or not, booking air fares on the Internet is here to stay.

Increasingly, airlines are offering their best deals only on the Web. As they continue to slash travel-agent commissions, more and more agents will go out of business, making it likely you'll turn to your computer for a great fare.

But what Web site should you use?

The truth is, as savvy fare shoppers are discovering every day, you should explore as many as you can, because each site has its own strengths and weaknesses. To get the most out of your Internet air-fare search, here are some important questions to ask:

- Is there a flexible date-of-travel option?

This is one of the most important questions you can pose. Sites come in two basic flavors. Some require that you enter exact dates (and often times) of travel, and then give you a fare. That's OK if your travel dates aren't flexible. What if you don't care when you go, as long as you get the lowest fare? If you're that kind of traveler, then no matter what other sites you visit you should also search on Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com).

Both these sites have flexible travel options (on Expedia click on "fare calendar," on Travelocity click on "my dates are flexible").

Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) does not have this option, nor does Sidestep (a fare-search "plug in" program you can download at www.sidestep.com).

Sadly, only one airline-operated site provides a flexible travel option: US Airways (www.usair.com). A tip of the wings to it for doing so.

- Does the site search all airlines, including the cheap ones?

The truth is, not all sites list all airlines. Many don't show fares (cyber and/or regular "published" fares) on carriers including Southwest, Pan Am and JetBlue.

For example, Orbitz and Expedia don't show Southwest's or Pan Am's fares, both low-fare leaders. Expedia doesn't include fares from JetBlue. Travelocity began listing Pan Am's fares in late December, but a recent attempt to book one failed.

In fact, the only way you can search every domestic airline's fares (including Southwest's) is to download the aforementioned Sidestep (unfortunately, it only works on IBM-compatible PCs, not Macintoshes, and only with Internet Explorer). Because Sidestep doesn't offer a flexible travel option, you still might not get the lowest fare unless you plug in the optimal travel dates.

What to do? Luckily, Southwest provides a list of all its fares, independent of travel dates (just go to www.southwest.com and click on "fares" and then select an origin and destination city). That way, you'll know if the fare you find on Sidestep is indeed the lowest available.

- Does the site list cyber fares alongside regularly published fares?

Sometimes, cyber fares (the ones you can book only online) are cheaper than regular "published" fares; sometimes they're not. The only way to find out is to use a site that compares both fares side by side. However, not all sites have this capability.

The ones that do are Orbitz and Sidestep, although, again, Orbitz doesn't list Southwest's cyber fares, and neither site has access to every airline's cyber fares. For instance, a recent search for the lowest Philadelphia-Atlanta round-trip fare came up with a regular fare of $259 on Sidestep, and a cyber fare of $154 on Orbitz - both fares on the same days/times, and both on US Airways. …

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