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Lowest Delta fare? Check delta.com

I touched on the subject of low-price guarantees in a blog entry earlier this week, warning readers that lower hotel rates can often be found on websites other than the hotels', so Delta's subsequent introduction of a "Best Fare Guarantee" presents a welcome opportunity to switch focus to the airlines.

First, the promise: "You will always find our best fares at delta.com, guaranteed." Delta's email, sent on Tuesday to members of the airline's SkyMiles program, followed up with an offer to refund the customer's money, or compensate him with the fare difference plus a $100 travel voucher, if the fare on Delta's website proved not to be the best available. (The Terms & Conditions of the guarantee give Delta considerable wiggle room in interpreting "best fare"—the subject for a future blog.)

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So, does Delta walk the low-fare talk? And more practically, do travel consumers need to comparison shop when buying Delta tickets, or can they go directly to delta.com feeling confident they'll find the best prices there?

To find out, I asked Bob Cowen, who regularly surveys the landscape of Internet pricing for airline tickets, hotel rates, and rental car rates on his Internet Travel Tips website. Cowen used Kayak, his preferred fare-comparison tool, to determine where the lowest prices for a representative sampling of Delta trips could be found.

His finding: "Occasionally Kayak showed CheapTickets with the lowest price, but I then went to Delta's website and the same flights were also available for the same price but Kayak didn't show it. Bottom line, even if another website shows a lower fare, check Delta's website." In other words, the ticket prices on delta.com were indeed the lowest available.

That should not be taken to mean that comparison shopping is irrelevant or unnecessary. Cowen's findings reflect a limited sampling conducted at a particular point in time. There may exceptions to the rule. And the rule, while in effect at the time of the survey, could change at any time. For now, though, Delta's website is the smart choice for purchasing Delta tickets at competitive prices.

Cowen's general advice for travel consumers is that they "don't confuse shopping with buying. That means browsing a site that checks many sources (I like Kayak and ITA Software). In almost all cases, buy tickets directly from the airline (Kayak takes you there most of the time anyway) to avoid confusion in case of a schedule or equipment change and to avoid the occasional booking fee imposed by some sites."

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