In 2008, when Orbitz first introduced their Price Assurance program — their policy that provides refunds when another Orbitz customer buys the exact same ticket as you — I was skeptical. As I wrote then:
Orbitz will automatically send you a check IF AND ONLY IF another Orbitz customer purchases the same ticket you booked, and they do it for less money. If the price just goes down, but no one buys that ticket on Orbitz, you’re out of luck. No refund.
So when would you be more likely to win in the refund lottery? It would need to be a frequently purchased itinerary, so I’d be expecting it on major business routes like Washington-Chicago, San Francisco-New York, etc. Trying to get a price drop refund on that Bozeman, Montana to Fayetteville, North Carolina itinerary? Good luck with that.
So imagine my surprise — perhaps even comeuppance — when a pair of tickets I purchased on Orbitz on behalf of the in-laws ended up yielding a refund check. The proof is above (with the check numbers erased) and if you click the image, you’ll see the marketing language that’s on the stub, too. Oh, and it’s been cashed, so don’t try anything too clever, smart guy…
This dates back to a purchase made in late October. I bought two US Airways tickets from Providence, RI, to Charlotte, NC for dates in December. The price was an embarrassingly-cheap $117.90 per person, roundtrip, all taxes and fees included. (Fare war with JetBlue at the time, apparently.) But someone else somehow did even better a few days later, and booked the same exact itinerary for $97.90. So not only was there a refund — at all! — there was a refund of $20 per ticket on a stupidly-cheap fare.
About six weeks after the trip was completed, the check arrived. Cashed immediately.
I’m certainly glad that I got cash back from the trip, without doing anything. I’m grateful for that. But at the end of the day, it’s still not a real guarantee that you’ll always have the lowest-possible fare for a given flight. If someone books a lower fare on Travelocity, or directly from the airline, you’re not getting a check.
The stars aligned for me. I got lucky, plain and simple.
Continental has launched “Fare Lock,” which charges you a fee to lock in a fare for anywhere from three days to one week. FareLock holds both a reservation and a fare, so you can reserve first and ask questions later.
The price is … vague:
Customers may choose FareLock when booking reservations at continental.com and opt for a 72-hour or a seven-day hold. They may return to complete the transaction at any time between purchasing the lock and its expiration, or they may choose an auto-ticketing feature which tickets at the end of the lock period. FareLock fees, beginning at $5 for a 72-hour hold and $9 for a seven-day hold, will vary based on a number of factors such as the itinerary, number of days to departure and the length of the hold.
So essentially, Continental is selling you a call option on an airfare, with the “call” expiring in either 3 days or 7.
(When Continental starts selling puts, as well as calls, call me… Can you imagine the secondary market?)
This could be useful for some people, if the fare is rock-bottom enough and worth buying insurance for. But remember, if you can figure out your plans within 24 hours, you don’t need such an insurance policy in the first place. After all, Continental still offers a 24-hour flexible booking policy, meaning that you have 24 hours from the time you purchase the ticket to cancel for a full refund, for any reason.
Interestingly, the press release reaffirms the existence of the 24-hour flexible booking policy, so the company is seemingly signaling that the courtesy-cancel isn’t going away. That’s good.
It’s not clear how much demand there really is for such a service. If the price is too high, that demand will disappear really quickly. For now, I’ll most likely rely more on the 24-hour courtesy-cancel, but it’s good to know there’s an insurance option available.
Thinking of traveling for the holidays this November or December? The good folks at FareCompare have mapped out the dates when the major airlines in the US have added “peak travel day surcharges.”
This phenomenon of peak surcharges began last year. It’s getting worse, not better, as more airlines adopt these fees that aren’t technically part of the base fare.
While there’s more to airfares than just these surcharges, avoiding (or minimizing) these fees can make a holiday trip more affordable.
Here’s a snippet for the Thanksgiving dates:
Note that Thanksgiving Day, and days prior to the marked dates on the chart, are surcharge-free. Interestingly, AirTran, which added surcharges over the summer, is refraining now.
Click on the image to see the full post and December date info.
Airfare forecasting has never been an exact science, but at least economists are trying to make it more precise. From the Observer:
An economist, Makoto Watanabe, has calculated that the optimum time to buy an airline ticket is eight weeks in advance of flying.
His yet-to-be-published findings also suggests that airline tickets are cheaper when purchased in the afternoons, rather than the mornings, prompting him to speculate that airlines are assuming business travellers will book their tickets at work in the morning on the company account, whereas leisure travellers are more likely to book from home in the afternoon.
The eight-week result stems from work published in the latest edition of the Economic Journal in which Watanabe and his colleague, Marc Möller, offer intimidating equations such as ?A = gUG + min(k – g, (1 – g)(1 – r)) as part of the complex formula, where ? equals profit, that determines advance ticket purchases.
The eight-weeks-in-advance rule is plausible, though even then it’s more likely a rule of thumb than a rule as such.
It’s also potentially geographically limited in its validity: If the study was based on flights originating in London, then eight weeks may be the sweet spot for London travelers. But not necessarily for every market.
The buy-later-in-the-day guidance may be more problematic. Recall the myth that buying Wednesday at midnight is the best time to buy airline tickets? This is a variation on that theme.
Finding the cheapest fare is much like picking the precise bottom for a stock. You’re better off trying to buy cheap (I like the email alerts from FareCompare.com for finding fares that are below the norm), not trying to pick the bottom.
ITA writes the code that powers the search engine behind Orbitz, CheapTickets, Kayak, Bing Travel, and a list of airlines. They also manage their own fare search site. ITA’s search site exists in seemingly perpetual beta, but it’s incredibly useful for finding complex itineraries that don’t automatically pop up in the usual booking sites.
In and of itself, it’s news that Google is committing to the travel space. But how might this affect the way we buy airline tickets?
Google says they’re not about to compete with agencies or airlines themselves. Their press info for the buyout reads: “Google won’t be setting airfare prices and has no plans to sell airline tickets to consumers.” (Somewhere, someone is sighing relief. Someone else is sighing in disappointment.)
Offhand, I actually don’t think Orbitz and CheapTickets (both part of the same company…) are at immediate risk, just because Google now owns their key data supplier. Google says (for now) that they don’t want to enter the travel sales business, so they won’t want to hurt what has to be one of their biggest clients.
So whose business is at risk? Which sites are in trouble? To me, it looks like a bad day for Kayak.com, Bing Travel, and any other metasearch sites that use ITA.
The metasearch business model is predicated on organizing information. So is Google’s. And much of Kayak’s information is coming from ITA. Google could easily take the ITA software engine and create a Kayak-esque site. And while Kayak has gotten a lot of attention over the years, it’s nowhere near the scale of Google. Kayak is at risk.
Not quite at the same level of risk, given the umbrella they’re under, but still in a weird position: Bing. Because Microsoft’s Bing also uses ITA, Google would suddenly become a supplier to Microsoft. An odd couple.
In a couple years, Kayak and its ilk may be marginal players in a field dominated by Google.
And Kayak must have seen the risks that Google poses. After all, Kayak itself was itself reportedly a failed bidder for ITA, alongside Expedia and Travelport.
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.