The Changing Face of Booking Travel Online
The end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 brought discouraging news for fare-conscious air travelers.
A few days before Christmas, American Airlines announced that its flights would no longer be listed on Orbitz, one of the biggest online travel sites. Delta followed suit a week later by yanking its flight listings from smaller travel sites CheapOAir.com, OneTravel.com and BookIt.com. Then Expedia rang in the New Year by suspending sales of American flights on its site.
Orbitz, Expedia and other online travel sites make it easy to compare fares and flight schedules of several airlines (and offer several other advantages that individual airline sites don't). "It could be bad for consumers if airfares disappear from online travel agencies," says George Hobica, a travel expert and founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. But we're inching toward it, he says, with the delisting of American's flights on the two major travel sites and discount carriers Southwest Airlines and Allegiant listing flights only on their own sites.
"If [American] goes the route of Southwest, there will be a domino effect" of other airlines pulling their flights off travel sites and selling them only on their sites, Hobica says. You might be wondering why this matters. After all, you know you can find a good deal on Southwest flights even though they're listed only on the airline's site. Or can you?
Hobica says that is the myth of Southwest. Its fares aren't nearly as competitive as they once were, but many travelers don't recognize this because Southwest's flights aren't listed on price-comparison sites. For example, I pulled up Southwest.com and CheapTickets to check prices. The lowest available roundtrip fare on a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to New York (LaGuardia) the last week of January is $234 -- the same as Frontier and US Airways. The next lowest fare on the Southwest flight (once the cheap seats are gone) is $968 -- which is triple the price of most of the flights listed on CheapTickets.
It does pay to compare. If you're a loyal Orbitz or Expedia user, you should consider checking sites that still list American Airlines flights, such as CheapTickets, Travelocity, Bing Travel and Kayak.
Once you purchase a ticket, don't stop comparing prices. You can set up fare alerts for certain routes through Kayak and Airfarewatchdog.com. Most airlines and travel agencies will give you a refund if the price of your flight drops after you book it. Just watch out for re-ticketing charges. Yapta will let you track a specific flight for price drops and takes into account ticket-change fees. Learn more about signing up for e-mail alerts from travel sites.