Map­ping the best on­line routes to book your travel

Times change (as do bag fees), but agen­cies still trail search sites

Austin American-Statesman - - TECH MONDAY - By Anick Jesdanun

NEW YORK — A lot has changed since I re­viewed travel web­sites four years ago. Now the best ones re­flect the new re­al­i­ties of travel and of­fer to in­clude lug­gage fees in fare cal­cu­la­tions. That helps be­cause $15 or $25 ap­plied each way can turn a good deal sour.

My ver­dict this time: I found TripAd­vi­sor slightly bet­ter than Kayak and Bing Travel.

Four years ago, I rec­om­mended travel-fo­cused search en­gines, par­tic­u­larly Kayak, as a one-stop shop for air­line deals. These ser­vices check mul­ti­ple sites at once and let you book di­rectly through the air­lines.

In con­trast, on­line travel agen­cies such as Or­b­itz and Ex­pe­dia did the book­ing for you — and tacked on sev­eral dol­lars in ser­vice fees.

I’m pleased to say that those fees are largely gone, partly in re­sponse to ris­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Yet af­ter try­ing all the sites again, I am still stick­ing with the search en­gines for their ease of use. Some­times the search en­gines still re­fer me to an on­line travel agency for the best deal, but at least they’ve checked around for me.

And I can more eas­ily use the search en­gines to nar­row my choices based on de­par­ture times, fre­quent-flier pro­grams and other cri­te­ria.

Be­fore I get into why TripAd­vi­sor was slightly bet­ter than Kayak and Bing Travel, I’ll note that they all work sim­i­larly. Start by typ­ing where you are leav­ing from and where you are go­ing. Then pick the de­par­ture and re­turn dates and hit “search” or “find flights.”

You’ll get a list of flight op­tions, which you can sort by price and other cri­te­ria. If you pre­fer non­stop flights, you can uncheck boxes for one or more stops. If you need to get there by noon, you can ad­just an on­screen slider to elim­i­nate af­ter­noon and evening flights.

Kayak and TripAd­vi­sor let you fil­ter out air­lines that aren’t part of spe­cific fre­quent-flier al­liances, so you can be sure you’ll earn miles. Kayak also lets you choose whether you want only flights with Wi-Fi wire­less ser­vice.

Let me step back to say that no search en­gine is com­plete. It all de­pends on deals a search en­gine makes with the air­lines and travel agen­cies. Kayak and Bing, for in­stance, can in­cor­po­rate fares from Or­b­itz but not Ex­pe­dia, and TripAd­vi­sor can pull fares from Ex­pe­dia but not Or­b­itz. None of the ones tested in­cludes South­west Air­lines fares.

As a work­around, these search en­gines do of­fer easy ways to search those ex­cluded sites in a sep­a­rate win­dow. Bing also in­cludes South­west flight sched­ules in its re­sults — just not the fares.

Based on all this, Kayak would win be­cause it of­fers more fil­ter­ing choices than the oth­ers. But that con­clu­sion would miss nifty fea­tures else­where.

Bing, run by Mi­crosoft Corp., has Vis­ual Search Gal­leries that help iden­tify the best op­tions based on whether you’re look­ing for a fam­ily vacation or a hon­ey­moon des­ti­na­tion, what time of year you want to travel and how long you are will­ing to sit on an air­plane.

Bing also lets you search for mul­ti­ple desti­na­tions at once, not just mul­ti­ple air­ports in a re­gion. If you’re be­ing in­de­ci­sive about whether to fly to Chicago, Mi­ami or Bos­ton this sum­mer, plug in all three and let Bing pull up all the op­tions.

Charts and graphs help com­pare fares by de­par­ture date and length of stay. They are based on what Bing calls “ob­ser­va­tion queries” — daily checks of mil­lions of flight and date com­bi­na­tions, all an­a­lyzed and stored in a data­base await­ing your query.

By con­trast, other sites that rec­om­mend the cheap­est travel dates gen­er­ally use data from what their users re­cently searched, so the re­sults are typ­i­cally in­com­plete.

Once you’ve set­tled on where and when to go, Bing can pre­dict whether fares are likely to go up or down if you wait. It’s based on the Fare­cast technology that Mi­crosoft bought in 2008.

I tested it by per­form­ing the same dozen flight searches seven times over a week. Had I fol­lowed Bing’s rec­om­men­da­tion to buy or wait on Day One, I would have spent a to­tal of $210 more on four flights but saved a com­bined $400 on seven oth­ers (The price on the 12th was un­changed). Not bad.

That said, Bing didn’t al­ways pro­duce the low­est fares. That honor goes to TripAd­vi­sor, based on test searches for a half-dozen dif­fer­ent trips. TripAd­vi­sor once even found a lower fare on Ex­pe­dia than Ex­pe­dia’s own site did.

Three of the travel agency sites — Or­b­itz, Trav­e­loc­ity and Price­line — some­times ap­peared to have a bet­ter fare by round­ing down, but ba­sic math calls for round­ing $169.70 to $170 — not $169. I dis­cov­ered that only by click­ing on the fare — in Price­line’s case, af­ter en­ter­ing my name and se­lect­ing a seat as well. TripAd­vi­sor didn’t try to hide that dol­lar.

I also liked TripAd­vi­sor’s tool for cal­cu­lat­ing bag fees and other add-ons. Sim­ply en­ter the num­ber of bags you are check­ing, whether you are have an elite fre­quent-flier sta­tus (which some­times comes with free bag check­ing) and whether you’d like to buy food, al­co­hol or head­phones on the flight.

TripAd­vi­sor es­ti­mates and adds the fees to your base fare for com­par­i­son. A JetBlue flight might sud­denly come out as cheap­est be­cause it lets you check one bag for free.

Kayak has such a fea­ture, too, but it’s less ver­sa­tile and harder to find.

Some trav­el­ers may pre­fer the com­fort of travel agen­cies such as Or­b­itz, which some­times of­fer re­bates when fares go down and send text mes­sages in­form­ing you of de­lays and gate changes. These travel agen­cies also of­fer dis­counted flight and ho­tel pack­ages.

You might also get good deals by sign­ing up for fare alerts and Twit­ter feeds that air­lines, Air­fareWatch­dog.com and many other sites of­fer. Hotwire also of­fers cut-rate prices — but you might have to buy be­fore you find out the air­line and flight time.

Nonethe­less, the travel search en­gines re­main a good start­ing point. I’ve long been a fan of Kayak, but this test has opened my eyes to other op­tions out there. I like Bing’s tools for help­ing me de­cide where and when to go as well as when to buy. But once I’ve made that de­ci­sion, noth­ing beats sav­ing money.

TripAd­vi­sor is my choice.

TripAd­vi­sor gets the re­viewer’s nod as the cur­rent champ among trav­elfo­cused search en­gines, edg­ing out Kayak and Bing Travel.

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