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