kayak explore Kayaks Explore maps low fares, but doesnt go far enough
A few weeks ago, Kayak rolled out a new featured, dubbed “Explore.” (It’s a feature right below “Deals” on the left sidebar.) The site maps fares from a given airport and promises to show you everywhere you can afford to fly.

“Explore” set some business media hearts a-twitter (for example…) upon release, with stories of how innovative this site is, but I’m sorry, it’s not good enough. “Explore” is neither a new idea nor the best possible execution of that idea.

Travelocity had “Dream Maps” years ago, which mapped fares from a given city. You clicked on the fare on the map, and you got a detailed list of the fares, the airlines, the fare codes (!), and the rules/dates applicable. You could click on a fare and a calendar with eligible dates popped up. You could choose dates and search for availability on the spot. I miss this.

One major reason I miss Travelocity’s Dream Maps is because they listed all the publicly available fares that were loaded into Sabre. Sure, you had to click through a number of fares before finding something that met your dates, but they were bookable. That’s not what Kayak is providing. You’re not seeing all possible fares. Instead, Kayak’s “Explore” pulls fares from a much more limited pool. From the site itself (emphasis added):

Fares displayed are for round-trip economy class travel found by Kayak users in the last 48 hours. Fares include all taxes and fees but may not include baggage fees charged by carriers. Seats are limited and may not be available on all flights or days. Fares are subject to change and may not be available on all flights or dates.

A rolling 48 hour window of search results is problematic in a number of ways. Not only are fares rapidly outdated, and thus useless in a search, but by limiting your results only to those cities where someone else has found a fare in the past 48 hours, you’re only getting a small number of actual fares. You’re essentially relying on others doing the searches for you. And those fares are pulled for specific dates, not a range of dates. Not necessarily your dates.

The fact that the range of results — based on other people’s searches in the last two days — is likely to be limited is especially problematic if you’re searching from small airports. New York fares might be pretty reliable, but how about Walla Walla, Washington fares?

Other sites have taken a stab at this, too. FareCompare currently comes closest. But I’ve had trouble actually booking some of the fares that come up. Mobissimo lets you search by regional destinations, too. And again, some of those fares aren’t bookable.

Bottom line: I like the idea of Kayak Explore. It’s a great concept. But someone (else?) can and should make it better. I know it’s a moving target, and a big set of data to sift through, but it was done once. Let’s map the complete range of bookable fares — again — to truly empower the consumer.

- Flexible-date search alternatives for international destinations
- Reader mail: I don’t care where I go, it just has to be cheap

Categorized in: airfare, fare search, Kayak.com

Downgraded: Reptiles and amphibians
A German reptile collector was caught trying to smuggle 42 endangered lizards and skinks out of New Zealand. In his underwear. For once, I’m in favor of full-body scans, if only to see what this looks like on the monitor.

Upgraded: Advice for worst-case aviation scenarios
No one wants to think about what they would have to do in the case of an inflight accident. But if you were to survive such an event, make sure you’ve read this guide to surviving a 35,000-foot fall.

Downgraded: Machu Picchu
Sad news: The train line that provides access to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru has been washed away, destroyed by recent flooding. This not only has devastating consequences for tourism in the immediate vicinity of the ruins, but for Peru as a whole:

Whether the fault of a mafia-like Cusco tourist industry, simple laziness by foreign and local tourism companies who slap an image of Machu Picchu on advertising and say “that’s Peru”, or the ignorance of cash-rich tourists happy to hand over money and be taken to where they are told – the result is the same. A Peru without Machu Picchu, despite there being dozens of equivalents across the country, is a country with a tourism industry in trouble.

See here for more amazing photos and videos of the destruction. Also here, for a sense of the breadth of the humanitarian disaster in Cusco.

train line to machu picchu1 Upgrades and Downgrades: Carry on lizards, Machu Picchu, Kayak, business traveling cats

Upgraded: Kayak’s hotel deals
Kayak, the leading fare aggregator, is following the online travel agency trend and pushing harder into the hotel space. Not only are they offering metasearch capabilities, which they have long done, but they’re now branching out and offering “private sale” rates. Though they’ll be technically sold directly by the hotel, it’s direct competition with the online travel agencies.

Upgraded: Hotel booking advertisements
Upgraded: Japanese business-cats

I don’t speak Japanese, but I suspect that this is an ad for a travel booking engine targeted at business travelers. Or at cats who travel on business. (Anyone who speaks or reads Japanese is invited to help with the translation. What’s on the business card??) The awesomeness of these 13 seconds cannot be overstated.

Categorized in: bizarre, Kayak.com

Downgraded: The image of the pilot
The recent hearings surrounding the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo have focused on lack of training and cross-country commutes. But they have also brought attention to the low pay that starting pilots receive at the commuter airlines. Salaries for first officers at regional airlines can be terrible: $25,000 a year for starters, and only $33,000 on average after three years. See also this graphic, listing the average salaries by category.

Upgraded, but not quite enough: Kayak’s search engine
A month ago, I reviewed the airfare aggregators or metasearch sites. I gave TripAdvisor’s new engine the win, largely because of its ability to estimate ancillary fees like luggage fees. Now, Kayak is adding a baggage fee estimator as well, as pictured below. But it’s not quite to the level of TripAdvisor’s engine, which takes into account factors like elite status, and allows for a more granular approach to fees than simply asking about number of bags.

kayak baggage pulldown Upgrades and Downgrades    Pilot pay, Kayak searches, TSA names, and hotel taxes

Downgraded: Nicknames and Abbreviations
TSA is rolling out the first phase of its “Secure Flight” policy, which means your plane tickets will have to match your identification more precisely than in the past. “During this phase of the Secure Flight program, passengers are encouraged to book their reservations using their name as it appears on the government-issued ID they will use while traveling.” And that means that, at some point (though not today), you won’t be able to use a middle initial on your ticket if your ID uses your full middle name. Which will piss off thousands of passengers while doing absolutely nothing for security. Asinine.

Downgraded: Hotel searches for Columbus, Georgia
If you’re staying in the town of Columbus, Georgia, you won’t find much in the way of hotels if you search the major online travel agencies. Why the boycott? Expedia was ordered to pay occupancy taxes to the city on the basis of the displayed room rate (the one paid by customers booking on the site). Previously, they had been paying the occupancy tax on the basis of the wholesale rates which they had negotiated with the hotel. So, now the major sites are simply not listing hotels in Columbus, GA at all. I’m no lawyer, but I can see the agencies’ point here: It makes sense to me that local taxes should be based on the rate paid locally — in this case, at the wholesale rate. I’m sure Columbus hoteliers are thrilled…

Downgraded: InterContinental brands
InterContinental is downgrading their properties’ service requirements. Gary Leff has the rundown, which, depending on the brand in question, includes delaying the purchase of new beds, cutting restaurant hours, cotton towels, and overnight front desk service.

Nearly three years ago, this site reviewed the then-burgeoning field of airfare aggregators, also known as metasearch sites. These sites let you compare the fares available across multiple airlines and across multiple booking sites, to help you find the lowest fare. Last time, Kayak came out on top. How much has changed in the last three years?

For starters, there are sites which have folded, some new competitors, and sites that changed their model significantly. At the same time, there has been pushback from airlines and suppliers, some of which have resisted the aggregator model. (The lawsuits between American Airlines and Kayak, which initially resulted in American Airlines no longer being listed in Kayak results, was perhaps the most prominent case of pushback. Since October 2008, aa.com results are back in the results. More on that below.)

The result: The golden ring of a truly complete search, covering all the options and all the providers, is still a ways away. No single site actually finds every flight option, every fare, or every seller.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences between the aggregators. It’s time to disaggregate the aggregators again.

This year, each site was put through multiple tests. Four kinds of itinerary were tested: A large-city to medium-city domestic US flight with multiple carriers offering direct service; a medium-city to small-city domestic US flight with at least one change of plane required; an international flight with a US origin; and international flights (from Paris to Dubai, and Manchester to Madrid) to test how sites do for non-US flights. For each of these flights, I tested a short-term booking (7 days advance purchase) and a longer-term booking (30 days advance purchase).

This time, I compared Kayak, Sidestep, Mobissimo, TripAdvisor Flights, Momondo, Skyscanner, WeGo (formerly Bezurk), Trax, Farecast, Fly.com, and Dohop. Sites which were on the list last time but either folded or stopped doing metasearch include FareChase (bought by Yahoo, then abandoned in March 2009), PriceGrabber, and Qixo.

So which aggregator came out on top in 2009? Here’s the summary, with site-by-site reviews thereafter… (more…)


TechCrunch reported and Budget Travel confirms that American Airlines is pulling its fares out of the granddaddy of all airfare aggregators, Kayak.com. Effective August 1, you won’t see AA fares on Kayak.

TechCrunch also reports, citing “the CEO of a competing travel site” as a source, that American is “considering doing the same with Orbitz. If it does so, other airlines such as Continental and Northwest may follow suit.”

For starters, this stinks for consumers, because it’s making comparison shopping harder. Already we’re stuck comparing apples to oranges, thanks to the variation between the airlines’ myriad fees. But in the long run, I’m betting that pulling out of comparison sites will stink for the airline, too, and we’ll see this decision reversed.

The comparison with Southwest will inevitably arise. Sure, Southwest doesn’t show up in comparison sites, but Southwest customers have been “trained” for years now to skip the search engines and go straight to the airline. American doesn’t have that kind of culture built up, and it’s unlikely to go all-in toward creating such a culture at this point. Just pulling out of Kayak won’t do the trick. And worse, it’s a real pain in the butt to waste time looking all over the internet for the lowest fare. I have always disliked that about Southwest, but hey, it’s working for them. Still, Southwest is the exception — not everyone can pull off selling tickets solely on their their own. Even JetBlue caved in and started publishing fares on other sites.

American Airlines has played these games before. They once yanked first-class fares from Expedia, but came back three weeks later.

This sort of thing goes both ways, too. Notably, online travel agencies don’t claim to cover ALL the options. Orbitz, for example, limits customers’ choices in its rental car search to those companies that pay to be included.

I’m betting that American’s pullout is a bargaining strategy. They hate to pay any referral fees to sites that drive them customers, but they don’t want to lose those customers entirely. Their real goal: to negotiate a smaller revenue split with Kayak and/or Orbitz.

If I’m right, then American’s fares will be back online for comparison shopping within a month or so. If I’m wrong, then we will likely see other airlines do the same, and the business model of Kayak and its competitors is at risk. It’s not just venture capitalists who lose out if those sites fail: The consumer loses. So I really hope my prediction is right.

milan duomo Reader mail: Where should I make international connections?

Reader Mara writes:

My husband and I are planning on flying to Milan from Houston later this fall using US Airways miles, and I’m wondering what the best option for connections would be. The agent tells me we can connect in Philadelphia, or there are Star Alliance flights we can take with Lufthansa, United, or Austrian. We know from reading your site that London Heathrow is bad for connections, and we would love some advice on where to change planes most conveniently. What should we avoid? Unfortunately there’s no Houston to Milan flight we can take! Thanks!

I applaud your strategizing, Mara, and I think you’re well on your way, simply knowing that Heathrow is a place to avoid. (Don’t believe me? Watch the video.)

There’s no nonstop Houston to Milan, so you’re going to be changing planes for this itinerary. So the question is, as you suggest, where to do it.

My general advice for travel to/from the United States: Try to avoid changing planes upon arriving in the US from overseas. You go through passport control and customs at your port of entry, not your final destination, so you have to claim your bags, possibly submit them to search, re-check those bags for your connection, probably change terminals, and hope you’ve left enough time to make the next flight. Not so in most of Europe: Connections are much, much easier in Europe, with customs inspections at your final destination rather than your entry point.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do after an overnight flight is to get onto another plane. Sure, I’ve done it, and sometimes it’s unavoidable, but my preference is always to have the overnight long-haul end at my destination. On overnight flights, try to arrive at your final destination, instead of at a hub requiring a connection.

So, practically, what does this mean for you? On your flight TO Italy, I would make connections in the U.S. and fly over the Atlantic direct to Milan. On the return, I’d make my connection somewhere in Europe and fly the long haul straight to Houston.

A caveat: These itineraries will usually involve different airlines on either end. That could get pricey for cash-money fares, even with codesharing. Try ITA’s search tool to find the best connections, and to get a sense of prices. Kayak.com may be of help, too, for mixed-airline itineraries.

But you said you’re using frequent flyer miles. Good! This is one of the less-celebrated benefits of the “free” ticket: You can mix your itinerary, with one airline going over and a different alliance member coming back. Use that flexibility to your advantage. And note: You won’t be able to view all the options online. You have to call the airline that you have the miles with — in your case, US Airways.

A quick search on arbitrary dates yields a flight from Houston to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia to Milan (all on US Airways). Coming back, consider Lufthansa from Milan to Frankfurt, and continuing from Frankfurt to Houston. Those flights follow the rules I set out, letting you avoid connections in Europe in the morning after your arrival, and skipping the tense fear that you might not make your connecting flight in the US, once you’ve dealt with Homeland Security’s passport control and customs inspections.

Either way you go, good luck, safe travels, and enjoy Milan!