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Booking airfare online: The best tools for finding the best fares

Each year, more travelers are choosing to purchase flights online. Many airlines encourage travelers to book on their website by offering price guarantees, and by charging fees to penalize travelers who book with airline reservations agents (on the telephone or at the airport) and online travel agents. We’ve compared the airlines’ and agencies’ searches to determine which offer the best tools to help you find the lowest fares.

Online travel agencies

Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity are the major online booking agencies. In general, their search tools don’t differ greatly from most airlines’ search tools: They allow travelers to book round-trip, one-way, and multi-destination flights. All three agencies also allow customers to add a hotel and/or car to the search, which often costs less than booking each item separately. And, each agency has extra features that make booking airfare easy.

  • Expedia has a flexible booking tool that allows travelers to search a range of dates to find the lowest fares. However, the search is only available on popular U.S. routes, which limits its usefulness for many travelers.
  • Orbitz has a unique booking tool called Flex Search that allows travelers to search three different ways: by weekends, bonus days, and flexible stays. The weekend search displays fares for weekend trips in an entire month, allowing customers to see which days are the least expensive. The bonus dates option searches up to three days before and after the selected dates. The flexible stays option searches for flights from two to 16 days in a given range. In addition to Flex Search, Orbitz will also allow customers to search alternate airports within 80 miles of the selected airport.
  • Travelocity’s unique feature is its flexible dates option. Travelocity searches both domestic and international routes—a great resource for determining which airlines offer the lowest fares for specific month(s). And, Travelocity will also notify travelers if an alternate airport’s fares are cheaper.

In our opinion, the all-around best search tool for finding a baseline price is Travelocity’s flexible dates feature. Because it is available on both domestic and international routes, it can be useful for all travelers, regardless of destination.

If you’re looking for a weekend trip, Orbitz’s Flex Search tool is the best option. It’s one of the only tools of its kind that clearly displays which days offer the cheapest rates for weekend trips, and is available on both domestic and international routes (although Orbitz’s website has not been updated to reflect the international searches).

However, the down side to booking with an agency is the booking fee that all three agencies charge. Expedia and Travelocity charge $5, while Orbitz recently raised its fee to $6.99 on most flights. And, some airlines’ fares are not included in the agencies’ searches, including low-fare carriers JetBlue and Southwest.

Airlines

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.

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