Conventional wisdom says most airfare searches start at an online travel agency or airline website.
But the conventional wisdom could be wrong.
Asked where they begin a ticket query, a new survey points to so-called “meta” search sites such as Hipmunk.com, Kayak.com and Mobissimo.com, which cull fares from multiple airlines and online agencies and then display the choices.
A slim plurality of travelers polled in a new Consumer Travel Alliance survey (37 percent) say they click on a meta-search site first. Another 35 percent begin with the airlines’ own websites, such as AA.com and Delta.com.
About 1 in 5 travelers go directly to an online agency, while only 7 percent call a travel agent and 2 percent visit a search engine like Google or Bing.
The survey of more than 800 air travelers comes at time when a coalition of online agencies is fighting a proposal by Google to acquire ITA Software, which develops airfare search applications for several major travel sites and has its own site, ITAsoftware.com, that is something of a cult favorite for meta-searches.
The coalition, which calls itself Fair Search, claims Google’s acquisition will create a monopoly that would raise airfares, and is pressuring the Justice Department to stop the sale.
It also comes as online travel agencies are fighting airlines over how tickets are distributed online, according to Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. None of the major airlines currently disclose their ancillary fees, such as extra charges for baggage, meals and reservations, to travel agents in a meaningful, systematic way.
Google’s pending purchase of ITA would further distort what consumers see through a Google-dominated search, since most meta-search engines use ITA software, he says.
“The airlines move towards obscuring airfares and fees, combined with possible Google manipulation of search results to keep advertisers happy rather than provide unbiased prices, bodes poorly for consumers,” he says.
A closer look at the way air travelers buy their ticket suggests they are adaptable, savvy and somewhat frustrated as a group. Perhaps more so than the industry is willing to acknowledge, at least publicly.
“I always start with Kayak.com,” says Jack Vanesko, a retiree who lives in Ajijic, Mexico. “Then I go to the specific airline I think I will be using, and make the reservation directly with the airline. I have yet to find an easier way.”
Tom Logue, a market researcher from Memphis, plays an agency off an airline when he goes shops for a ticket.
“First I go to Delta, my airline of choice,” he says. “If the fare seems outrageous, I will go to Expedia to compare fares, hoping that I can justify a purchase through Delta. Either way, I always buy through the airlines rather than other sites.”
Marti Mayne, a frequent flier from Yarmouth, Maine, does it the other way around, beginning with Expedia.
“I guess that’s because I’m used to their format and it allows me to scan different airlines and prices and schedules quickly and easily,” she says. “I then move on to Travelocity and Orbitz, but usually don’t find anything very different there.”
But Mayne always books the final ticket through the airline, because airlines take better care of direct-booking customers.
“I’ve been screwed too many times and ended up having to spend the night in the airport because I had an Expedia-issued ticket, and the airline wouldn’t do anything to re-book it when delays occurred,” she says.
Barbara Gorman, on the other hand, typically shops for the lowest price.
“I start at Orbitz.com to do a search to see which airline has the lowest fare but then I normally go directly to the airlines site of one of the few airlines I prefer to travel in order to earn my frequent flier miles,” she says.
If all of this seems like a game, that’s because it is – at least to many of the air travelers who participated in the poll. If there were a place — either online or offline — where they could be assured of a reasonable price and service, they say, they’d choose it every time.
“I feel that we have been forced to spend inordinate amounts of time searching online ourselves for the best deal, the best times to fit our schedules so that we can take a trip, and then after we make tentative decisions about those, we have to wade through all the a la carte charges for everything,” says Sylvia Prast, an exasperated frequent traveler.
Finding such a place to buy airline tickets could be a tall order.