Routehappy: The Latest Airfare Search Engine

The new airfare search systems keep coming, and the incumbents keep adding features. Last week, I covered three new ones; here's still more.

Routehappy.com claims to base its finding on how "happy" a flight will make you—as well as how much it will cost. The idea is to evaluate flights through several "happiness factors," including seat space, time of flight, baggage fees, in-flight entertainment, onboard Wi-Fi, and user ratings. And you can filter the results by "happiest," "cheapest," or "fastest."

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The idea sounds intriguing, but when I tested it, the results didn't always agree with my idea of the "happiest" flights.

On my first look, I checked two routes: from my home airport in Medford, Oregon, to San Francisco, and from San Francisco to New York. And neither result made me happy:

  • From Medford to San Francisco, Routehappy gives the same Happiness Score to flights in those tiny, tiny, cramped Embraer 120s—the planes everybody in Medford hopes United will retire soon—as it gave to the much preferred roomier, faster and more reliable CRJ 700s.
  • From San Francisco to New York, the only flights I saw were on Virgin America, an airline that a lot of people like but that I find distinctly inferior to JetBlue (which offers more legroom, good in-flight entertainment and a no-charge checked bag).

A subsequent, more extensive test turned out better results, but with a few remaining questions:

  • As before, the Happiness Scores for Medford to San Francisco failed to note the big difference between the EM120 and CRJ700 flights.
  • From San Francisco to New York, this time the test returned flights on JetBlue, American, Delta, and United, in addition to Virgin America. Virgin America again outscored JetBlue—I still disagree with this ranking—but, in addition, the relatively high scores for United flights were apparently based on the seating dimensions of Economy Plus rather than regular economy, even though the fares were for regular economy.
  • A San Francisco to London test came up with another strange finding. When screened for "cheapest" flights, United's two daily flights came up with a higher Happiness Score for the 777 flight than the 747—a finding with which I strongly agree. But the Happiness Score for a Lufthansa flight came up lower than the score for the identical flight operated by United with a Lufthansa code-share.

The conclusion: I admire Routehappy's ambition, and it seems to be on the right track. But keep in mind that you may not agree with the ways it ranks "happiness." Take a look; you will find it interesting, even if not definitive.

Hotwire's Trip Watcher has added functionality: You can search flexible dates by weekend or month. As before, the site shows the lowest available fares and sets up the system to notify you "within minutes" if the fare drops.

Overall, however, I find Hotwire's other features to be more useful. Hotwire's TripStarter is extremely helpful, showing day-to-day price levels for the current year to date and the full previous year for both airfares and average rates for 3-, 3.5-, and 4-star hotels, as actually sold to travelers. Actual sales data are much more useful than the "average price" figures you see quoted so often. And year-to-year changes track extremely well, meaning the previous year's pattern is a pretty good guide to the current year. All in all, it's the best answer to the perennial "when is the cheapest time to fly" question. And Hotwire's Travel Value Index regularly lists the 10 top "value destination" cities in the United States based on low rates, discounts, affordable entertainment, and overall appeal.

Meanwhile, I haven't found any third-party online agency or fare search engine so far that displays the "branded" options available on American and the other lines that bundle fares and features. As pricing evolves, this feature will become increasingly important. For now, the challenge is for the OTAs and fare engines to provide as much functionality as the airlines' own systems. So far they don't, but they'll have to if they want to retain their positions.

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

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