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Cheap Flights II: The Search

Congratulations on making it to part II. 


Disclaimer: Broadly speaking, your options for searching and booking flights likely vastly outnumber your ability to give a damn about searching all of them.  Hopefully, this helps you figure out a strategy to more effectively manage your searches.   Here are, broadly speaking, the four options to choose from in your search. 


Booking direct with the airline: Barring a significant cost advantage, this is my preferred option.  Card transactions are seldom declined here, room for errors is small, and you’re a higher priority than those on tickets sold by a third party. Further, if there an inquiries/issues with your ticket, you deal directly with the airline rather than with the third party agent.  


Online travel agents (OTAs):  Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, et al.  You can search across the OTA’s inventory across all carriers.  Certain OTAs are capable of doing more complex routing and tickets than you’d be able to do with an airline’s own website or their phone booking operators.  There’s access to discounted inventory and flight packages.  Between the ability to assemble more complex/lengthy itineraries on one ticket and the cost savings, this might be a very attractive option.


Consolidators:  These are (usually) small agencies/OTAs that buy *really* deep discount inflexible tickets that you won’t find elsewhere.  Some don’t like dealing with these shops as many are here-today-gone-tomorrow websites. Some, like Vayama, endure.  Expect minimal customer service.


AggregatorsMomondo, skyscanner, google flights, etc.  These guys effectively meta-search the OTAs, consolidators and airlines to compare who is selling at the best price.  Note that you do not book directly with an aggregator. They direct you to another seller. I am a huge fan of starting here to gauge the market before making a final booking decision. It also saves the time of individually searching airlines, OTAs and consolidators.

Screen capture of momondo website business class itinerary between DC and Mexico City
Momondo.com screen capture


Which one is best?


That’s impossible to say.  It depends entirely on your route, timing, flexibility, and preferred class of service. Someone looking to go home for Christmas with a 2 week travel window is at the mercy of the airlines compared with a retiree free to travel on their preferred itinerary any time between April and June.


How do I do it? Typically, I do a quick search of google flights to check out the lay of the land.  Google however doesn’t look super-deep, so to say. It will check out airline sites and top OTAs, but leave out quite a bit, so the overall scope you get is limited.


The Power of a Comprehensive Search


Gather round children, for I have a story to tell. 


Flight searches are a recreational activity for me. This is the simplest characterization.  I’ll look up flights simply for the hell of it.  When a friend is pondering a trip, I search with gusto.  If people paid me to search for flights, I’d probably be elated. 


When I was living in Auckland, I had a triangular trip planned. I was visiting Thailand and Sri Lanka. While I had my Auckland-Thailand and Thailand-Sri Lanka flights set up, I needed the final leg back to Auckland.


Nicole Harrington

Initially, I wasn’t optimistic.  Colombo has excellent flight links heading east (towards E and SE Asia) and west (mostly carrying Sri Lankan migrant workers to the Gulf States and Indian tourists to SL).  Links north and south are…limited.


Nonetheless, I pressed on and directly searched for Colombo-Auckland on momondo. Seeing little harm, I decided to do a business class search.  The result was unbelievable: a business ticket on Sri Lankan and Qantas via Singapore and Sydney ticketed with expedia.co.uk for £474 (about US$715 in January 2015). Quelle le fuck?!



Three legs, 20 hrs 15 min travel time (including reasonable stopovers), all business – including a flight on Qantas’ awesome new-to-them 1-2-1 business class seat. I checked on google flights. They didn’t pick it up.  Expedia’s US site didn’t show it for me. Hmm.


Further surprise happened when I clicked through to Expedia’s UK website, and the itinerary didn’t return an error. I felt the thrill of stealing the Hope Diamond as I clicked through with the purchase. 


Not content to lord over my once-in-a-year find, I decided to dig deeper and share with the world via Flyertalk.  This rock bottom fare was also available to Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, dramatically increasing its utility to the travel hacking community.  Also, it priced out at roughly $1,175+ for a return ticket, a steal for someone wanting to visit AUS/NZ but needing/wanting to return to South Asia.


Alas, great fares die when publicized much as measuring quantum stuff changes the thing measured (paraphrasing from Futurama).  The pro travel bloggers picked up on this bargain, and that inventory disappeared damn quickly.  I guess Qantas wasn’t happy with their slice of the pie of a $700 ticket that they could charge AU$3,000 for on their own.


We have two lessons to take away from this.  First, POINT OF ORIGIN PRICING FTW!  Second, share your awesome fare finds at your peril. If you are considering booking the ticket yourself, don’t shout from the rooftops and mountainsides until you’ve secured your own passage.


– James out


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Featured Image Credit: Ricardo Mancía