No Web specials popped up on the four routes we tested -- from the Washington area to New York, Paris, Chicago and Orlando -- but they're out there. For example, Expedia and Orbitz showed a special Web fare of $151 for a round trip between New York's JFK and Oakland, Calif. This fare was available only online. It was nonstop each way and the times were convenient, leaving shortly before 9 a.m. both ways.
A Web special may be available only through Expedia or only at Travelocity, if it's a negotiated deal. One advantage of big travel booking sites is that they can sell enough volume to cut their own deals with airlines and offer exclusive fares, Harteveldt says. Airline sites often promote their own specials -- these are typically also sold through Orbitz, which makes Orbitz a good place to start a search. But Orbitz, owned by American, Delta, United, Continental and Northwest, is prohibited from negotiating proprietary deals with any airline due to antitrust concerns. So it can't have a featured airline like Travelocity, or sign up partners and promote them with banner ads like Expedia.
A June 27 report from the Department of Transportation states that, based on the evidence to date, "Orbitz has adhered to its contractual commitment to unbiased presentation" of airline services. But DOT refrained from reaching "definitive conclusions," pending the antitrust review of Orbitz by the Justice Department.
The Little Guys
One concern about having big travel booking sites dominate online travel purchasing is the fate of smaller airlines, such as America West and AirTran. Are they being squeezed out? Orbitz says small airlines fare well on its site, which is owned by five of the six top U.S. airlines. Small airlines, if they have the best fare, will show up first, and thus sell well on Orbitz. Harteveldt agrees, saying the numbers back Orbitz's claim.
The three leading travel booking sites say their core fare displays remain unaltered. "Our fare display is sacrosanct," says Expedia's marketing director, Suzi LeVine. Expedia promotes its partners with banner ads, offers such as 20 percent off a future flight, and direct e-mail notices for opt-in subscribers. Expedia would not name the airlines with which it has marketing agreements.
Travelocity has marketing agreements with Delta, Northwest, Continental, British Airways, JetBlue and others, said Michael Stacy, the company's senior vice president of marketing. The recent commission cuts forced Travelocity to enter these broad agreements, he said, noting that Travelocity never reorders its results to favor particular carriers. Like Expedia, the site uses banners, promotions and direct e-mail advisories to encourage customers to purchase tickets from the airlines with which it has agreements. But Stacy says this is a "win-win" situation, as customers learn about deals they might not have discovered while the site's airline partners sell more tickets.
Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, is not so sure. "When [booking sites] say 'preferred vendor,' they mean preferred by the site -- not the consumer." Jenkins, who authored a recent report called "Buyer Beware: Online Travel Displays for Sale," says these pay-for-performance deals are legitimate but should always be clearly disclosed. "It's not that [these offers] are bad deals -- it's just that they're not always the best deals."
Orbitz vice president and general counsel Gary Doernhoefer says the bottom line is that if airlines and other travel suppliers are paying Expedia, Travelocity and others, they expect a return on their investment. Orbitz is prohibited from engaging in any such agreements, but the site charges a $5 fee for processing a ticket. Though the fee is nominal -- and far less than the fee charged by most storefront agencies -- it can put Orbitz at a competitive disadvantage. If Orbitz and Travelocity serve up the same itinerary, and Orbitz is $5 more expensive, most travelers will choose the cheaper ticket. Expedia and Travelocity officials say they have no plans to impose fees.
If Orbitz's fare is more than $5 lower than the best deal offered by its competitors, customers will likely pay the fee. However, savvy shoppers may check Orbitz to find the airline with the lowest fare and then book at that airline's site (such as United.com) and may be able to avoid paying the fee. Buying at airline sites may also garner perks such as bonus frequent-flier miles.
Though consumers have to be more wary than ever, improvements on the leading travel sites can help them find what they seek -- and this doesn't just mean low fares. Expedia's LeVine said more than half of her site's airline-ticket buyers did not choose the lowest fare offered -- convenience and choice of carrier factored into most travelers' selections. The fare matrix introduced by Orbitz last year -- which shows more than 100 fares in an easy-to-read grid -- can help consumers quickly find the itinerary that best suits their needs. Expedia and Travelocity have also increased the number of options they show, but present a more limited selection, saying they're more focused on viable itineraries.
More recent advancements are also helpful. Expedia shows on-time performance for flights before requesting payment. Travelocity displays fares at alternate airports (when it finds a better deal nearby), though it only shows one alternate per airport. All three leading sites have made it easier to check alternate days for lower fares. And Orbitz has expanded its grid display beyond domestic itineraries to cover Canada.
Beyond the Big Three
Though the three big travel booking sites are improved, they're not the only places to search. SideStep, which can be downloaded from www.sidestep.com, runs while you search other travel sites. Because SideStep works directly with many budget airlines and discounters, it often turns up cheaper fares. Beware, however, that the deals can be misleading -- SideStep automatically includes nearby airports, so that great deal to New York City may be on a Southwest flight landing in Islip, Long Island.
For flexible travelers, Priceline.com and Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) often offer deep discounts for travelers who are willing to fly on any carrier at any time of day. In its early days Priceline was criticized for long layovers and bizarre routings, but the service has improved. Domestic itineraries are limited to a maximum of one stopover and layovers are three hours or less, said Priceline chief marketing officer Brett Keller. As online outlet stores for airline inventory, Priceline and Hotwire steer consumers to the carriers with which they have sales agreements, but they don't disclose their partnerships. However, this is less relevant at Priceline and Hotwire because shoppers at these sites are primarily interested in price. When booking, they can't choose flight times or airline -- that's part of the trade-off for the low fare.
As competitive as the big travel booking sites have become, shopping online, even among several sites, isn't going to turn up all the best fares and most convenient itineraries. For international journeys, a consolidator (discounter) or savvy travel agent can be the best bet. Remember, travel bias isn't relegated to online travel sites -- storefront agents can cut their own deals, too. So shop around -- and keep peeking behind the curtain to see what the wizard is up to.
Michael Shapiro, a regular contributor to Travel, writes the TravelTech column for the San Francisco Chronicle. The new edition of his book, "Internet Travel Planner," will be published next month by Globe Pequot Press. For a directory of top travel sites by topic and updates to the book, see www.nettravel.com.
Comparing Online Fares
Which online booking site offers the best fares? Unfortunately -- and you knew this was coming -- there's no one best site. For our most recent site comparison, we shopped for four trips on arbitrarily chosen dates in July and August, using three booking sites, one airline site, and the booking tool SideStep. Surprise: In three of our four itineraries, SideStep, which routes bookings to airlines' own systems, found the lowest fare. Moral: Shop around.
* = Best Fare
DCA, IAD - NYC (JFK or LaGuardia)
Orbitz: $121; U.S. Airways, United, Delta; nonstop
Expedia: *$116, U.S. Airways; nonstop
Travelocity: *$116; U.S. Airways, United, Delta; nonstop
SideStep: $121; Delta; nonstop
Orbitz: $1,144; Northwest; one stop
Expedia: $1,139; Northwest; one stop
Travelocity: $1,204; Air Canada; one stop
SideStep: *$1,106; British Airways; one stop
DCA, IAD - Chicago (Midway or O'Hare)
Orbitz: $252; ATA; nonstop
Expedia: $266; ATA; nonstop
Travelocity: $228; AirTran; one stop
SideStep: *$198; AirTran; one stop
Southwest: $284; Southwest; nonstop
BWI - Orlando
Orbitz: $170; AirTran, Delta; nonstop out, one stop return
Expedia: $184; American; 1 stop
Travelocity: $178; AirTran, Delta; nonstop out, one stop return
SideStep: *$154; AirTran, nonstop
Southwest: $175; Southwest; nonstop