Airfares and Hotel Rates: Back to Square One?

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

If you’re looking for the best airfare or hotel deal, you can’t trust a single online source. The exact reasons are different for airfares than for hotel rates, but the net result is that the internet is no longer able to provide what it once did: Easy and accurate one-search airfare price comparisons and quick identification of the best deal.

The key factor for airfares seems to be substantial and constant near-random fare variations. At least that’s what Consumer Reports recently found as a result of an exhaustive and methodologically sound research effort. CR checked nonstop airfares on five busy domestic routes as returned by six big online travel agencies and three metasearch systems. The test controlled for time differences and even for whether the searchers’ computers may have had cookies from prior searches. The final sample included 372 separate round-trip search results. And the results–or lack of consistent results–is mind-boggling:

  • Fare results varied as much as $138 for trips on a given route that were searched at the same time, and fares for a given trip varied by as much as $238 when queried on different days.
  • All nine websites delivered different airfares on separate browsers on simultaneous searches.
  • The test revealed no evidence of fare bias based on browsing history.

Clearly, the once-heralded model of simple online fare searches is broken: You can’t call up one website that will provide definitive price comparisons among all the airlines. CR had no explanation for the huge discrepancies. One industry representative noted that posited that the differences were based on the fact that fares can change from one second to another, but that hardly seems enough to explain the entire slate of differences.

The CR test didn’t even approach the question of whether still better deals were available on the airlines’ own websites. And the airlines are tweaking their displays to include possible deals that you can’t find on independent websites at all, including various fare options that bundle such extras as seat assignment, a checked bag, and early boarding at attractive package prices.

So, what’s the answer to finding the best airfare for your next trip? My suggestion:

  • Start with a metasearch system that will instantly check a bunch of online agencies and airline sites. Take your pick of TripAdvisor, Google Flights, Kayak, Hipmunk, or whichever other one you like. That will at least narrow your search to the possibles. The CR results suggest that you try at least two such searches. Make a note of the two or three best options; some sites allow you to “hold” that information.
  • Then look up the trip on the website of any airline that offers a better deal for your trip, especially checking for attractive bundles.
  • And, in my colleague George Hobica’s words, “When you find a good deal, pounce.”

The hotel problem is different, with two barriers to accurate price comparisons. The first is a spreading scam. More and more hotels are cutting-out part of the real price, posting the phony low-ball rate up front, and adding the cut-out back in as a “resort” fee. City hotels are now starting to do the same with a “facility” fee. And what you see on the first comparison screen is the phony low-ball price, not what you actually have to pay. The Federal Trade Commission is supposed to outlaw this sort of scam, which is per se deceptive, but, at least so far, it’s been dragging its feet. State attorneys general should also go after it.

Several big chains are now luring you to book through their own systems by offering incentives in the form of free Wi-Fi, free breakfasts, often as loyalty program benefits, and such that the online agencies don’t find or offer. The online agencies often can’t detect senior and other discounts, either.

I’m aware of no search system that can present all-up hotel prices, including fees and discounts, on the first comparison. The one that did, the Suitest, is no longer working. So, as with airfares, you can’t rely on a single search. Get to work.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at

(c) 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC. — Tribune Content Agency — September 5, 2016

Ed Perkins is a nationally syndicated travel columnist, with weekly columns appearing in three dozen U.S. newspapers. He was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter and has written for Business Traveller (London), Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, The New Yorker, and National Geographic Traveler.

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