Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Others: What’s the Best Travel Search Engine?

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but our annual summer vacation is right around the corner.  Weren’t we in the throes of a Little Ice Age just last month?

Ah, well.

I’d like to say we were going back to Maui, but unfortunately I drew the short straw this year and so the Honeybee got to choose where we’re going.

Naturally, I was surprised to find out that the Honeybee thinks nothing says “relaxing summer vacation” like a two-week trip to visit her family in the Northeast.

Most people circle the day on their calendar when they start their summer vacation.  This year I’ve circled the day we get home.

Ah, I’m kidding.  I love my wife’s family.  (At least the ones that speak to me.)

Anyway, like most people, I started planning my two-week trip to hell vacation (just joking, Dad!) by looking for the cheapest airfares at several of the standard travel service providers such as Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia.

While I was searching for the lowest air fare between Los Angeles and Hartford I noticed that there was virtually no difference between any of the providers.  In fact, after fees and taxes were included, the quotes I got from Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, Hotwire and Priceline were all within a single dollar of each other.

That got me thinking: is there really a difference between these travel providers, at least when it comes to finding the lowest-priced airline fares?  Maybe it didn’t matter.  Then again, maybe my case was just an aberration.

So I decided to put together an interesting but very non-scientific experiment to see if one provider had any kind of edge over the others when it came to finding and/or providing the lowest air fares.

The Experiment

I evaluated seven travel service providers: Airfare.com, Expedia, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity.

For the experiment I decided to compare round-trip prices for two different city-pairs over three separate dates; that’s six different scenarios in all.  The goal was to see if they really were pretty much the same.

After all, if they were that knowledge would save me a lot of time when planning future family vacations – hopefully to Hawaii, as opposed to Hartford.

For the first city-pair I chose a trip between America’s two biggest cities, Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (JFK).   For the second city-pair I decided to represent the biggest U.S. city in land area, Jacksonville, Florida (JAX) and – what else? – the biggest little city in the world: Reno, Nevada (RNO).

The Results

It took me about thirty minutes to complete the searches and record the data.  Here are the results:

AirlineFareComparison

Travelocity

For this limited test, Travelocity fared the best (no pun intended).  They not only had the lowest price in three of the six scenarios, but they also ended up with the lowest overall total average ticket cost.  Travelocity’s success was based upon their ability to find deals that the other providers couldn’t.  For example, they found a red-eye flight for $308 ($37 cheaper than their closest competitor) on Sun Country Airlines that departs LAX at 11:55 pm and arrives at JFK at 10:05 in the morning, which included a mid-trip layover in Minneapolis.   Travelocity also offered the best deals of any other provider on both flights booked within two days of departure.

Kayak

Kayak was the runner-up in this experiment, with the best prices for the Jacksonville-Reno trips that weren’t booked at the last minute.  Kayak is slightly different than the other providers listed here in that they don’t actually sell plane tickets, hotel rooms, or anything else.  Instead they search hundreds of travel sites at once and compare the best options for you.  Still, as my results showed, that that didn’t guarantee they’d always find the lowest price.

Priceline

In terms of entertainment value, while searching for air fares it’s tough to beat Priceline.  At least it was when I was searching.

As the Priceline engine was scouring the Internet for the best prices it kept a picture of William Shatner on the screen – in a body-builder’s pose that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger proud – imploring people to “Watch me flex my bargainus maximus.”  Heh.

Priceline did prove adept at finding the lowest prices for the two trips that required tickets to be booked within two days of departure.  In fact, Priceline matched Travelocity dollar for dollar.  But Priceline gets the nod here because unlike Travelocity’s 11-hour three-city odyssey from Jacksonville to Reno, Priceline was able to offer the same trip with a single connection in Dallas in under six hours.  I will definitely keep Priceline in mind the next time I have to make last minute arrangements.  Assuming Bill is still flexing his, um, bargainus maximus that is.

The Others

Although Hotwire didn’t have the best price in any of the scenarios, they were consistent in always being at or near the lowest prices offered.

On the other hand, although not the most expensive of the providers, Orbitz was inconsistent in its ability to offer low prices everytime.  For example, Orbitz quoted price of $403 for booking a trip from LAX to JFK more than 120 days from the scheduled departure date was almost $100 more expensive than Travelocity.

Overall though it was Expedia and especially Airfare.com that came out the worst in this experiment.  In fact, Airfare was so much more expensive than the other providers I am wondering how they manage to stay in business.

Yes, I Know.  This Test Is Far From Scientific.

It would be crazy to consider this little experiment a definitive analysis.  However, it does illustrate that not all travel service providers are created equal.

In the end you can’t blindly assume that just because one provider is saying they are giving you the best possible deal, it must be so.   You’ll need to do a little more research if you are interested in maximizing your savings.

A Few Parting Tips

1.  Travel service providers are not always the cheapest way to go. After you find the best price there, you should also check if you can book a cheaper price directly at the airline website.  That won’t always be the case, but it’s worth a shot.  For example, for the short-notice trip from LAX to JFK, I went to the airline’s site to see if I could get a cheaper price.  It was $95 more expensive than Travelocity’s price.

2. If you can help it, fly on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Airfares tend to be cheapest on those days because those are the airlines’ lightest days in terms of passengers.  Airfares are most expensive on Sundays; Mondays and Fridays are close behind.

3. Avoid key holiday dates when possible. For example, most people travel the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after that holiday and, naturally, that’s when airfares are highest.  If possible, try to fly on Thanksgiving day and the Monday or Tuesday following Thanksgiving.  Just tell Mom to have Thanksgiving dinner on Friday.  The same travel logic applies for other holidays as well.

4. Don’t wait until the last minute to book your flight. The longer you wait to book your flight, the less flexibility you have with regard to price and seat selection.

5. Shop around, baby! William Shatner can flex his bargainus maximus all he wants, but in the end knowledge is where the real power is.  The more sites you visit and inquiries you make, the smarter you’ll be when it finally comes time to buy those plane tickets – even if they’re to Hartford instead of Maui.  ;-)

35 comments to Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Others: What’s the Best Travel Search Engine?

  • Susan Tiner

    I’ve found that if you call the airline directly you may be quoted different flights and prices than you see online. Same goes for hotels.

    • mark12

      They notoriously use photos for more desirable Hotel locations to bait you into booking an entirely different location. I recently booked a $175 one night at what I believed was Oceanside Comfort Inn & Suites in Virginia Beach (After all, they were using Oceanside photos). Once I booked, the voucher read an entirely different and far less desirable hotel location about 20 miles inland. Otel.com refused to refund me after a month of what they called “investigation into the matter.” During that process they said “we’re trying to get you a full refund.” Sure they were. I ended up calling the Oceanside hotel and they told me that they have told Otel.com many times to stop using their photos!!!

  • The only other tip I would include would be to make sure you clear your cookies! A lot of those sites increase the price, when they can tell you are shopping day to day on a flight.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..Don’t Forget to File your State Income Tax Extension =-.

    • Really? That’s a very interesting tip Evan, I’m going to try it next time!
      .-= Monevator´s last blog ..Video: John Maynard Keynes versus Friedrich von Hayek =-.

    • CW

      Actually, most online retailers charge different prices for regular customers. This is simple price discrimination (not a bad word), and they use cookies to do it. For example, Amazon will generally charge a higher price for return users. But if you clear your cookies before you go to Amazon.com, you are often quoted a lower price. This is because Amazon needs to offer lower prices to entice new customers, but not necessarily so with return customers. In other words, new customers have a higher price elasticity of demand than return customers.

  • Len

    If you have an Amex card, you should try checking their online travel site (which is powered by travelocity!). Reason I say this is because I found that their recommended company to buy trip cancellation insurance is the best. I once booked flights with cheapoair.com, and had to cancel the trip. I found out that their insurance does not cover the whole price of tickets and it was just a mess.

    Hence, I would say “price is not everything”…
    .-= Mr Credit Card´s last blog ..Can Creditors Seize or Garnish My Spouse’s Income? =-.

    • @Susan: You are so right about calling getting different results than online. It’s gets even stranger though… I am a big subscriber to the school that says “if you don’t like a price an airline’s phone agent is giving you, hang up and try again.” Two times out of three you’ll get a completely different price just by redialing and getting a different agent! Try it!
      @Evan: Brilliant point! How did I forget to include that, as I was just telling my buddy to do that last night. I always clear my cookies when shopping for airfares.
      @Mr. CC: Wow, you had a tough act to follow after Susan and Evan’s points – but you came up with another good point. Price can be a double-edged sword at times. Another thing I guess I forgot to mention is some sites, like Airfare.com, emphasized prices (with large print) that DIDN’T include the taxes/fees – so you need to be careful before pushing that BUY button. Other sites, gave both prices equal billing. Personally, I think they all should show the prices with taxes/fees included as the emphasized price.

  • Len, your first point, that travel service providers aren’t always the cheapest is something I found to be true again and again.

    Anytime you travel, it’s worth checking out ALL of the options, including going direct. It seems to vary based on destination, time of the year, provider, etc.

    One stop shopping would really be the thing here, but it isn’t meant to be. We still need to shop.
    .-= Kevin@OutOfYourRut´s last blog ..Advantages of Business Credit Cards =-.

  • Hey Len,

    Thanks for saving me the research next time I travel. I have a friend who travels a lot for trade shows and I’ll point it out to her as well. It’s tips on budgeting like this that make frequenting your site worth the time I take reading.

    Thanks again,
    Guy
    .-= Guy G.´s last blog ..Grocery Saving Tips – Tips on Budgeting =-.

    • @Kevin: Yep – I totally agree with you. Another surprise I found when shopping for my vacation airline tickets is that the conventional wisdom that says Southwest is always cheaper than the other carriers doesn’t always hold true. When I did my comparison Southwest was over $107 more expensive per ticket than another major carrier.
      @Guy: Glad I could be of service! :-)

  • Wow, I always thought Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz used the same search engine…very interesting results.

    Another site I use is Farecast.com (now owned by Bing). If you are flying to/from major airports, they are able to predict rather the ticket price will go up or down and will suggest you buy or wait. For the most part its pretty accurate, though there is no guarantee.
    .-= Lakita | Personal Finance Journey´s last blog ..Investing in Sin Stocks =-.

  • Nice analysis and interesting results!
    .-= 20smoney´s last blog ..Did Your Grandparents Have A Financial Adviser? =-.

  • Hi Len, I also subscribe to a lot of sites like airlines & travelocity to get email alerts when my preferred routes (places we go often) have sales. My husband and I got a really great deal to Boston recently. The catch is, you have to book really fast, because the cheap seats go!! Oh, and wow,do you consider a vacation to the in-laws reallly a vacation? Can you book a real vacation too? Maybe just a week end in Laguna Beach or Big Bear?
    .-= Barbara Friedberg´s last blog ..DO YOU NEED A ROLEX WATCH? =-.

  • I think online shopping has really smoothed out the average prices overall. If we could compare shopping for tickets in 1995 with 2010 – that’d throw up some clangers. ;)
    .-= Monevator´s last blog ..Video: John Maynard Keynes versus Friedrich von Hayek =-.

    • @Lakita: Wow, that is an interesting concept Farecast has! I’m going to use it on my next planned vacation – to Hawaii, not Hartford. ;-)
      @Barb: Aww, I love my in-laws. I’m looking forward to having some good northeast pizza and taking in a little humidity. LOL And truth be told, we’re going to go on a side excursion to Washington DC for about five or six days at the end of the trip too – so it should be a fun trip. I also intend to take a smaller vacation with the family to my old stomping grounds on California’s central coast later on this summer.
      @Monevator: Well, Investor, I think you’re right – as usual. In a perfect marketplace, where everybody knows everything, the prices between the competitors should end up converging to the same point, assuming they want to stay in business.

  • Mah

    I love travelocity for their flexibility. They are the only ones who have the flexible dates feature. You can just put in your destination and it shows all the flight prices. Then you can pick the dates on the cheapest one.

  • Here is an experiment. Go to savontravelonline.com do a search. Now do the same search on expedia or travelocity or any other major travel site. Just a warning Savon Travel has fares from United States though, but other than that, it’s pretty awesome.

  • Zack

    I was hoping you could help me!! I don’t fly very often or even really ever go on trips. However, I’d like to start going on a few trips each year as I’m finally out of school and will have the time and money to do so.

    I was hoping you could tell me who you believe to be the best travel search engine that would give me the best vacation deal (hotel and flight).

    I realize that it varies from week to week, and even day-to-day. But I’d like to know where I could go to browse places on just ONE site instead of looking at 10 different ones every day!

    So far, I’ve found that bookit.com has shown me the best package deal as I have found round-trip flights from Dallas to NYC on Jan 4-8 and staying in a 3.5 star hotel on Times Square for around $1100 total (taxes and fees included).

    Thank you in advance for any bit of help you could give me!

  • I´m not sure, I got your point By the way, I got an eMail from Clickbank about the new Joint Venture program, looks very promising. Will anyone try this out and see if it is as good as it sounds? Contact me on my blog. CU

  • For me, its Priceline because I always get my hotel room 24-48 hrs. out and I do the “Name Your Own Price” option. Works for me.

  • Loved the article keep it up.

  • Besttravelcoupon.com searches all of the sites you listed and many more.

    The best sites for travel deals are kayak.com and besttravelcoupon.com. Both offer more options than the old travel search sites such as Priceline.com.

  • The best travel search engines are:

    1. BestTravelCoupon.com
    2. Kayak.com

    You can avoid jumping around to Priceline, Orbitz, Hotwire, etc, by just using these 2 sites.

    These site work as real search engines. They search all of the sites and post the lowest rates. Here is a good explanation of how it works with hotels:

    Hotel Search Engine

    Here you can see how this “search engine” type travel site beats sites like Orbitz. Shows you how to avoid “hidden fees” and some good price comparisons.

  • Karen

    I like Kayak for ease of use of the site. Kayak is best for me because I’m not dealing with Kayak to buy the tickets, Kayak connects you directly to the airline so you are booking with one entity instead of two, leaving only half as much chance for something to go wrong. Also think if you buy direct from the airline they are more accommodating if there is a problem and more willing to work to fix it because they have not paid a commission to Priceline, etc. The airline can tell you to go to your travel booking site to straighten out the problem and they will not help you. I fly United / Lufthansa and because I’m a frequent customer they are particularly helpful. A free upgrade on Lufthansa from steerage to business class on a recent flight to Germany from EWR is one nice thing they have done for me. The fact that I occasionally, but not most of the time, may pay a few dollars more for tickets on these two airlines is worth it to me.

  • mark12

    Otel.com notoriously use photos for more desirable Hotel locations to bait you into booking an entirely different location. I recently booked a $175 one night at what I believed was Oceanside Comfort Inn & Suites in Virginia Beach (After all, they were using Oceanside photos). Once I booked, the voucher read an entirely different and far less desirable hotel location about 20 miles inland. Otel.com refused to refund me after a month of what they called “investigation into the matter.” During that process they said “we’re trying to get you a full refund.” Sure they were. I ended up calling the Oceanside hotel and they told me that they have told Otel.com many times to stop using their photos!!!

  • harriet

    Wow, I loved this terrific article!

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