Booking airfare online: The best tools for finding the best fares - Page 2

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AirTran, American, America West, ATA, Continental, Delta, Expedia, flexible search, Frontier, Independence Air, Jessica Labrencis, JetBlue, Midwest Airlines, Northwest, Orbitz, Southwest, Spirit, Travelocity, United, US Airways.


Most airlines' searches offer the basic booking options: round-trip, one-way, and multi-destination flights, and generally do not have as many flexible options as the agencies' search tools. Low-fare and smaller airlines tend to have more search options than their larger counterparts, although some legacy lines have recently added new options.

  • AirTran, ATA, and JetBlue allow travelers to check the days before and after their preferred dates to see the difference in flight times and prices—an easy way to compare fares. JetBlue's fares are only available on its website or by calling the airline directly.
  • Southwest presents travelers with a chart of all available one-way fares for a selected day (ranging from the most expensive refundable fares to special Internet-only fares). Customers can experiment with dates and times of day. Like JetBlue, Southwest's fares aren't available on Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity.
  • America West's Low Fare Finder search tool displays fares for several days before and after a selected date, allowing travelers to easily see which day(s) are cheapest. It is also useful for checking the prices for up to three days before and after the original travel dates.
  • Midwest searches by price or schedule, but when displaying fares, it presents travelers with a grid showing the prices for traveling on the day before and the day after both the selected departure and return dates.

Most of the bigger airlines do not offer much flexibility in searches (with a few notable exceptions). Continental, Delta, and US Airways only provide the option to search by price and/or schedule (although Continental will search for fares plus or minus one day). Smaller airlines like Frontier and Spirit also have straightforward searches without many options. Some of the more notable search options from the major airlines are:

  • American recently added new booking options (and a low-fare guarantee) to encourage travelers to book on its site. Its new flexible dates option allows travelers to search dates up to one month at a time.
  • Northwest's best-fare guarantee assures travelers that they will find its lowest published fares on its website. Its search options are similar to several of Orbitz's Flex Search options. Northwest offers both a flexible search for up to three days before and after the originally selected dates, as well as a search for weekend trips by month.
  • United has also introduced a lowest-fare guarantee for airfares booked on its site. In addition to searches by price and schedule, United has flexible dates and alternate airport options. But, when we tried using the options, they were not available in several searches.

Southwest's search tool is the most straightforward of the airlines' options. By displaying all the available fares, complete with flight times and number of stops, customers can easily find the lowest fares.

However, Northwest's weekend trip search tool is another good resource, and is available for domestic and international routes (unlike Orbitz's).

Other searches we like are offered by low-fare carriers (AirTran, ATA, Independence Air, JetBlue) because the searches make it easy to check alternate dates. America West's Low Fare Finder and Midwest's searches are also helpful because they automatically display fares on alternate dates.

Read comments or add your own insight!