2:46p.m., Friday, Nov. 7. We're researching air fares between Washington Dulles and London. We log on to Microsoft's Expedia, a site on the World Wide Web that, like every other travel booking service on the Internet, claims to offer access to the best fares. We punch up Flight 21 on Virgin Atlantic from Dulles to London's Heathrow on Dec. 2, with a Dec. 9 return to Dulles on Virgin's Flight 22. The best price available is $652.52.
It's now six minutes later, 2:52 p.m. To be thorough, we're asking one of Expedia's competitors, Internet Travel Network, to price those exact Virgin Atlantic flights. ITN gives us a fare of $411.51 for the same flights on the same days, a difference of $241.01.
An hour or so earlier, at 1:39 p.m., we had Expedia price flights between Washington Dulles and Minneapolis-St. Paul. TWA Flight 507 on Dec. 2 to Minneapolis, with a return on TWA Flight 664 on Dec. 9, prices at $318.
At 1:48 p.m. that same day, we had asked yet another online travel booking service, Travelocity, to price the identical flights. Its price was $702 -- more than double that quoted by Expedia.
Ten days later, at 2 p.m., Monday, Nov. 17, we request another Internet booking agency, Preview Travel, to price a round-trip flight on Continental from Washington National to Rio de Janeiro, with a connection in Newark. The price is $849.
At 2:07, we ask Travelocity to price the same itinerary on the same dates. The price is $1,064.
These wide-ranging price differences offered by competing Internet air fare booking companies -- for the same seats on the same flights, often priced within minutes of each other -- are not isolated aberrations. As our several weeks of reporting -- and more than 16 months of sustained, regular use of these services both to check fares and book trips -- demonstrates, such discrepancies are commonplace. For the millions of consumers who use the Internet to price and book their air travel, they are also a good reason for concern. Use any one service and wind up paying $400 more. Or $250 less. Or $150 more.
Worse, there is no pattern to the discrepancies, no service proving itself consistently capable of delivering low fares. Each service takes its turn quoting high and low fares.
The simple fact is this: Despite the Internet booking services' explicit claims to the contrary, none systematically, consistently provides the lowest fares available -- or even fares consistently lower than its competitors' quotes. Choosing to use and rely on any single Internet booking service -- and trusting in its prominent low-fare claims -- can cost you hundreds of dollars.
Three years ago, of course, consumers had no access to air fare quotes at all, except through travel agents and the airlines themselves. Aside from calling multiple agents and-or multiple airlines, there was no way even to determine a range of possible fares for a specific trip. So clearly these Web-based services help consumers cope with a confusing, high-stakes marketplace. And those willing to put in the time and effort to become expert with several systems can indeed use them to find the honest-to-goodness lowish fares of the moment.
The use of these services is expected to rise quickly over the next several years. According to a recent survey for the Travel Industry Association of America, online travel industry revenues totaled just a sliver of the entire airline passenger business in 1996 -- $276 million, or less than 2 percent of the total amount spent on air travel. But, the survey predicts, people will spend $8.9 billion buying air and other transportation services online by 2002. Of course, such rosy predictions fuel the high-tech industry and are often more useful to tech firms trying to raise venture capital than to people seriously forecasting business trends. But nobody disputes that use of these services is growing. Another TIAA survey published in November estimates that 6.3 million Americans used the Internet to make airline reservations in 1997, an increase of 19 percent over 1996.
Representatives of the online booking services admit that the price discrepancies we found using their products exist -- and that they are indeed inevitable, because each service draws on a slightly different database of flight information that is constantly changing. In addition, each performs searches in a slightly different manner. In other words, the services use technology that is incapable of consistently generating the best or lowest fares compared with other online booking sites.
The problem is that a consumer would be hard-pressed to learn this from the promotional material the services post prominently on their Web pages. Expedia's search engine promises to deliver "your low fare." ITN says it performs a "low fare search." "Lowest fare for your selected itinerary," boasts Preview Travel. "The lowest fares on the Internet," brags Travelocity.
But when asked whether the traveler can be certain of actually finding the lowest fare on a specific flight using only their services, spokesmen hedge and dodge.
"That's a difficult question," says Terry Jones, president of Travelocity's parent firm, the Sabre Group. "I don't know how anybody ever knows he's got the lowest fare. It's as volatile as stock prices. The prices and inventory are changing all the time."
Preview Travel was in the process of becoming a publicly traded company, so spokesmen were unable to make public statements about the service while we conducted interviews for this story.
John Herst, group product manager for Expedia, insists that Expedia can dependably find low fares. But he acknowledges that the entire pricing system is "very confusing. It's confusing for people in the industry."
All Web-based airline booking systems are really nothing more than a set of access tools -- user-friendly "front ends," in industry patois -- for one of four major computerized Central Reservation Systems, also known as Global Distribution Systems, that serve the travel industry. Each system is a massive database of flight and pricing information; all are owned and operated largely by airlines or firms owned by airline holding companies. The CRSs sell access to their databases to Internet-based booking services, as well as to travel agents, corporate travel offices and others in the travel industry, though folks in the trade don't use the same World Wide Web front ends. Most professionals use a more flexible but harder-to-learn system that provides more information than Web-based services do.
Two of the top Internet booking companies -- Preview Travel and ITN -- use Apollo, which is owned by United, US Airways and Air Canada. Expedia uses Worldspan, which is owned by Delta, Northwest, TWA and Abacus Distribution System, a CRS in the Asian Pacific market. Travelocity is powered by Sabre; American Airlines owns a majority of both Sabre and Travelocity.
The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that the airlines share their pricing information equally with each CRS. While there have been questions for years about whether airlines can be trusted to publish competitors' fares equitably, at least by law each system should have identical access to identical information. But Joe Witherspoon, online product manager for ITN, points out that each CRS has a different schedule for updating fares.
"They [the airlines] are uploading millions of fares a day," he says. "And they are changing the availability hundreds of thousands of times per minute. A minute or two can make a big difference." In addition, low-priced leader Southwest is available only via Travelocity, making other sites' searches incomplete. And some very small carriers are not listed on any of the CRSs.
Chris Privett, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents, explains that many airlines aggressively practice "yield management," by which fares and availability are constantly adjusted according to demand and supply. Airline statisticians watch how seats priced at certain levels are selling. If they are not selling well, the price may go down. If they are selling well, the price may go up. Decisions are made minute to minute. All this information must be sent by the airlines to the CRSs -- or plucked from airline databases by the CRS itself -- which then update its database. Inevitably, their data management schedules and procedures differ, resulting in different information in each CRS.
Sabre's Jones says price fluctuations, coupled with inventory changes, account for many of the problems. "Fares change five to seven times daily," he says. "Inventory changes every second."
Josh Herst of Expedia agrees, but also points to technological differences.
"The search engines of different CRSs use different algorithms for searching their databases," he says. "Their databases may come up with different answers."
So, with all these moving variables -- plus the opportunity for human error causing delays, omissions and other mistakes -- how can the Internet booking services promise their users "lowest fares"?
ITN's Witherspoon is the most willing to acknowledge the limits of any single Web-based pricing service. "The only thing to do is to compare [quotes from different sources]," he says, adding that most members of the public don't understand all the nuances of travel booking and should use a travel agent. For those who read the small print, those admonishments are also contained in ITN's online instructions.
This may not be surprising, given that ITN is designed to serve travel agents as well as consumers, ensuring that agencies get a slice of the anticipated growth of Internet-based travel booking. Companies like Microsoft and Preview Travel, by contrast -- which are attempting to take business away from travel agents by providing consumers with direct, online access to air tickets, hotel bookings and other travel products -- insist that their services are essentially reliable, despite our findings.
They say many price discrepancies can be overcome if users perform rigorous and redundant searches (often described in linked pages of user "tips" accessible from the service's main Web page). For example, users should repeat fare searches using different dates, times, airlines and airports. And each service claims that it's important to use its related "lowest fare" listings to provide additional comparative information.
Travelocity's "Today's Lowest Fares" feature reports the lowest published fares between 14 of the country's largest markets and the restrictions associated with those low fares. Armed with this information, Sabre's Jones says, a user can then tailor an itinerary to meet those criteria and generate a similar fare. But the system has serious limitations. For one, information is available only for trips within the 14 large markets listed. And the tool, like a similar feature used by Expedia, does not take seat availability into account. "Whether a seat exists," Jones acknowledges, "is another question."
Jones says Travelocity is doing everything possible to assure that low fares are cited. The Sabre CRS system directly queries the airlines' data to ensure that inventory is as up to date as possible. Fares are updated six times daily.
He points out that consumers are guaranteed no better results if they use a travel agent or call an airline directly. "How do you know they're giving you the lowest fare?" he asks. Airline reservationists may know the products of their own airline very well, but they can't offer competitors' fares. And travel agencies typically have contracts with a single CRS, so they draw on information that can be as limited as that a consumer has using a single Web site -- though agents may be knowledgeable enough to extract useful buried data to help find a lower fare than a consumer can.
Expedia's Herst was more emphatic in his belief that a traveler can be assured of getting the lowest fare using Expedia alone, largely thanks to the service's "Fare Compare" feature. Fare Compare differs from Travelocity's "Today's Lowest Fares" in that it lists the lowest published fares between every commercial airport, not just those in 14 markets. Users can use Fare Compare as a low-price benchmark when researching their own flights, Herst says, a process he compares to learning an auto dealer's invoice cost.
Problem is, Fare Compare and Expedia's Travel Agent fare-finder are not always in sync. A recent review of Fare Compare's lowest published fares between Washington and San Francisco produced a fare of $296 on America West. But when Expedia was asked to price the same trip, it gave a fare of $251 on America West -- cheaper than the "lowest published fare."
Also, you can't make Expedia book all flights described in Fare Watcher. For example, on another day Fare Watcher produced a lowest published fare of $234 round trip on Western Pacific between Washington and San Francisco. But when we tried to get the fare on that airline, using different dates and times, Expedia never offered a Western Pacific flight.
Herst acknowledges that finding the lowest fare "may be difficult" because of restrictions on the number of seats and on dates the fare is offered. But he maintains that if the fare is not sold out, the determined consumer will eventually find it via Expedia by plugging in different dates, times and other variables.
The major players in the Internet travel booking industry are looking with interest and some dismay at a new product called IntelliTrip, designed to solve some of the price discrepancy problems. The software, launched this week by TheTrip.com, yet another Internet booking service, must be downloaded and installed on an individual's computer to operate. It aims to provide simultaneous access to the five major Internet booking services from a single front end.
After downloading the IntelliTrip software from the intellitrip.com Web page, a consumer fills out one profile to automatically register with Expedia, Travelocity, ITN, Preview Travel and TheTrip. A travel query made through IntelliTrip is simultaneously routed to all five Internet booking services, and results will be posted for each, allowing the traveler to compare fares.
Dave Schafer, spokesman for TheTrip.com, said the system "compares apples to apples. If you go from site to site to site, the fares may have changed," Schafer said.
But in a preview test of the service before public launching, the product was buggy and inconsistent. Flights chosen as lowest-priced by the different booking services are frequently not the same flights, so the system does not always compare apples to apples. It was difficult to get responses from Travelocity and Expedia via IntelliTrip, resulting in incomplete data. And some really odd matches -- like a US Airways flight in one direction and an AirTran flight return -- were sometimes chosen.
Schafer hesitated when asked whether the Internet booking services have been supportive of IntelliTrip. "We notified all of the major booking services of the site," he says, adding that his company believes the new site is "a good deal for everybody."
ASTA's Privett says he recently needed to fly to Wichita, Kan., on the spur of the moment. He dialed into Travelocity and got a round-trip fare of $1,300 on TWA. He called his travel agent and was told that he could fly round trip on the same flights for $311.
"For all I know, it was the same seat," he said.
Privett predictably touted the use of agents during a time of touchy, twitchy technological evolution.
"The Internet gives us a vast amount of information," he said. "But there's a difference between having all that information and having knowledge about that information. I can look up the Harvard Medical Dictionary on the Internet, but that doesn't make me a doctor."
But for the millions of consumers for whom saving $25 or $50 or $100 per ticket is very important, the question looms: What's the best route to a low air fare nowadays?
A savvy travel agent can save you an enormous amount of time by doing all the screenwork for you -- though in our experience, they must be directed, repeatedly and assertively, to devote serious time to plumbing for rock-bottom fares. And not all agents are experienced enough to use the system's patterns, tricks and tics to their clients' advantage. You might want to validate your travel agent's low quote with your own research on the Internet.
If you want to go it alone, your best bet is to become acquainted with at least three of the Internet booking services, establish customer profiles and log-ins with each, and spend the time putting your trip -- and its various variables -- through all three services. Yes, this is time-consuming and tedious; it can take three or four hours for a simple trip. Be aware that the more flexible you can be -- by trying different airports at both ends, and a variety of times, dates and airlines -- the more likely you are to come up with a low fare. You'll also need to check low-budget airlines that serve your destination via their own Web sites or 800 numbers, as some of them aren't listed on Web-based booking services.
Or you can attack the problem the old-fashioned way: Call the airports you might want to fly out of, determine which carriers provide service to your destination, and call each airline directly. Be prepared to talk to several reservationists for each airline. Bring a crossword puzzle or some knitting.
But one thing is clear: For all the information they can deliver to your desktop, none of the World Wide Web-based travel booking sites can consistently and dependably deliver you the lowest air fares. Ignore all hype to the contrary. The ubiquitous promise of "lowest air fares" is one thing available on the Internet that nobody should buy.
If you're determined to bend the Net to your will, clear your datebook, disable the "call waiting" on the phone line your modem will use, put on a pot of coffee and gather up something to do while waiting for information to wriggle down your phone line and appear on your computer screen. Have your credit card handy, if you plan to actually book online. And follow these tips:
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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