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Aggregator Sites: One-Stop Shopping?

Besides offering a wider selection of options, aggregators differ from online travel agencies in several ways. Many of them include no-frills budget airlines like Southwest, JetBlue and Canadian-owned Jetsgo, companies not listed on Orbitz or other major online booking sites. And, with the exception of Qixo, which charges a $20 booking fee, aggregator use is free. Instead of booking fees, they receive revenues from advertisers. Some also get a small pay-per-click fee when they refer a site and a user clicks on it.

As travel tools, aggregators are far from perfect. SideStep's software is time-consuming to download. (While the download is necessary for airline searches, hotels and car rentals can be scanned through a Sidestep Web site that is not necessary to download.) Once installed in a computer, SideStep is ubiquitous, popping up whenever a user starts to look for rates on other sites. While some consumers like the instant comparisons it provides, others find it annoying.

TESTING THE SITES

We searched for the cheapest flight from Dulles to Madrid for a date in late November, using aggregator sites and the "Big Three" booking agents.

AGGREGATORS:

Cheapflights.com $389

(Alitalia, via Milan)

Farechase.com $498.20

(US Airways, via Philadelphia)

Kayak.com $489

(US Airways, via Philadelphia)

Mobissimo.com $401.62

(Alitalia, via Milan)

Qixo.com $489

(Alitalia, via Milan)

Sidestep.com $514

(British Airways, via London)

Travelzoo.com's SuperSearch $496

(KLM, via Amsterdam)

BIG THREE:

Travelocity.com $447

(Air France, via Paris)

Expedia.com $448.28

(Air France, via Paris)

Orbitz.com $508

(US Airways and Lufthansa)

Other sites, like Qixo, are not particularly user-friendly; searches on it can take several minutes to complete.

And in spite of their broad Web searches, aggregators don't always offer the cheapest airfares.

To test the system, we searched the major players for a round-trip ticket from Dulles to Madrid for an arbitrarily chosen week in November. The fares ranged wide. (See accompanying chart for details.) The cheapest appeared on a link offered by Cheapflights.com for an Alitalia flight via Milan for $389; Mobissimo offered the same flight for $401. The most expensive was a British Airways flight SideStep found for $514 via London.

Broadening our search to non-aggregator sources, we found a flight for $416.68 on the Web site for Iberia, the Spanish airline. None of the aggregators had listed it. When we tried the same search a couple of days later, however, the Iberia fare popped up on SideStep. Conclusion: Shop around.

In some cases, aggregators work best as informational sources that give a sense of the range of rates available for a particular destination. That's how Joe Ehrlich, a San Francisco backpacker who frequently scours the Web for deals, uses them. In a hunt not long ago for a ticket from San Francisco to London, he logged onto Mobissimo. It was a useful tool to get an idea of the array of fare prices, he said, but after some comparison shopping, he found a better deal on Travelocity.

As the aggregators gain stature, the tug between them and online agencies for customers is becoming fierce. Kayak initially used Expedia as one of the sources where it searched for fares, but last month Expedia said it did not have an agreement with Kayak and asked to be removed. "We believe that Expedia and all of the other agencies will agree to be listed once they see that we're here to stay and are offering a service that will help them," said Dana Galin, vice president of communications at Kayak.

And last month, Orbitz announced that it could guarantee the lowest fares on the Web for all the airlines included in its database. If a customer books with Orbitz and then finds a published airfare at another online site for the same airline and itinerary that is at least $5 less, the company says it will give the traveler a $50 coupon good for future travel.

Hugo Burge, chief executive officer of Cheapflights.com, downplayed the guarantee, saying it has so many conditions that customers will have a hard time cashing in. He recommended that travelers shop around for deals. Indeed, in our test for Madrid fares, the cheapest we found on Orbitz -- $508 on US Airways and Lufthansa -- was beat by many of the aggregators.

Aggregators lead to the lowest price enough of the time that they are worth checking out. They might also lead to the most convenient connection. "We're finding that travelers are not always looking for the lowest price but the best option given the kind of parameters they are operating under," said Beatrice Tarka, CEO of Mobissimo. "And that's what we want to lead them to, the best deal available, taking into account all their needs and wishes."

Graphic: Comparing Aggregator Sites


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