Opaque Airfare Sites: Do They Work?

Add GetGoing.com to the list of "opaque" travel-buying websites—this time, one that specializes in airfares. "Opaque" means you don't find out about the details of the trip until after you make a nonrefundable purchase. The current big opaque players—Hotwire, Priceline, and Travelocity's opaque option—work best for hotel rooms and rental cars, where you have enough control over what you buy that you're seldom disappointed. Until now, airfares have been a different story: The uncertainties of opaque buying tend to offset any cost reduction you might enjoy. GetGoing may well change that perception—at least for some travelers.

All opaque selling requires a degree of uncertainty. Unlike the others, the uncertainty with GetGoing is the destination. Here's how it works:

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  • Do the usual sign-in routine and then select a "home" U.S. city from a list of 56; GetGoing says, "More airports coming soon."
  • Select where you want to go from a worldwide list of seven major regions or, alternatively, form a list of travel types (adventure and outdoors, beaches and sun, and such).
  • Select a city from up to 20 cities that pop up on the regional list.
  • Check the list of flight itineraries—often more than 200 departure and return possibilities—each showing a relatively short departure-time range, specific airports in multi-airport cities, the number of stops, and prices.
  • If you see a flight you like, select it as "Trip A."
  • Repeat the search process and select a "Trip B."
  • Submit the usual personal and credit-card details.
  • GetGoing tells you which of the two trips you actually get.

The two trips can be relatively close destinations or destinations in completely different regions. You could choose New York and Philadelphia or you could choose London and Hong Kong. What you can't do is select trips to two airports in a multi-airport city (Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example) or any two airports less than 50 miles from each other.

The final version wasn't up when I checked, but the limited-access beta is fairly robust. And if the beta data were representative of what you'll see after the site goes hot on March 7, some of the reductions will be enticing. GetGoing is based in San Francisco, so I compared some sample trips from there with the best available fares on Expedia for round-trip travel April 10 to April 17:

  • Seattle: GetGoing, $127 nonstop; Expedia, $178 nonstop.
  • Chicago: GetGoing, $211 nonstop; Expedia, $288 nonstop.
  • New York: GetGoing, $233 nonstop; Expedia, $318 nonstop.
  • London: GetGoing, $869 one-stop, $1,035 nonstop; Expedia, $997 nonstop.
  • Paris: GetGoing, $910 one-stop, $944 nonstop; Expedia, $1,042 one-stop, $1,088 nonstop.
  • Tokyo: GetGoing, $904 one-stop, $1,075 nonstop; Expedia, $948 one-stop, $1,265 nonstop.
  • Hong Kong: GetGoing, $860 one-stop, $939 nonstop; Expedia, $1,036 one-stop, $1,075 nonstop.

Although GetGoing invites you to ask about flights to a destination not on the list, it could not find flights to the four cities I tested—Charlotte, Milwaukee, West Palm Beach, and (no surprise here) my home airport in Medford, Oregon.

Sample prices show some patterns common to many discount-airfare sources: One-stop flights often cost less than nonstops, and self-styled discount agencies don't always offer prices lower than the big agencies. As always, check the alternatives before you buy.

The fundamental reason airlines use opaque outlets is to sell a few seats to price-sensitive leisure travelers who are willing to sacrifice some degree of certainty to cut their costs. And the opaque feature "fences" off these cheap deals from business travelers and from leisure travelers who need more certainty. Clearly, they won't work for people who really want to go somewhere: The extra cost and hassle of getting from where you arrive to where you really want to go can offset most price gains. But when you're planning, say, a leisurely drive through Northern Italy in a rented car, you don't really care whether you start that trip in Milan, Bologna, Pisa, or Venice.

GetGoing is up and running as of March 6. If you're intrigued, take a look.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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