IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Don’t take the wrong bait

Just because a Web site says it offers low fares doesn’t mean it’s showing them. You have to know where to look
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Hundreds of airfares for a single itinerary!” “Guaranteed lowest prices for hotel rooms!” If statements like these have you believing that travel Web sites are one-stop marketplaces for the best deals, think again. As wonderful as opportunities on the Web can be, you can’t always believe what you see, even when something is guaranteed. Like many other merchants—from Circuit City to Barnes & Noble—travel Web sites sell some of their best space to suppliers.

InsertArt(2037885)AIRFARE searches are unbiased, but airfare “specials,” hotels, and car-rental displays can be skewed toward preferred vendors. These sites are “littered with bias,” says Henry Harteveldt, online travel analyst for Forrester Research.


For a two-day car rental in , quoted a daily base rate of $27.87 from Thrifty. But SideStep (), a free downloadable search tool, found a rate of $18.69 from Enterprise. Enterprise is in Expedia’s database—why wasn’t the rate showing up? Expedia coughed it up only after the search was narrowed from “No preference” for car company to “Enterprise.” Perhaps because Enterprise has no “preferred partnership agreement” with Expedia, the site buried the better deal.

(Expedia, for its part, says that the companies that sign agreements promise Expedia’s customers superior service, earning them prime placement.)


InsertArt(2037896)If you search Travelocity for a flight, above the list of fares you’ll find several panels highlighting prices. You might assume that these panels show the best fares, but only the left panel is guaranteed to be the lowest price; the others often display fares from Travelocity’s marketing partners. Travelocity says non-partners are featured sometimes, if they have good deals. But on a recent search for a flight between San Francisco and New York City, the first panel listed $330 on America West, indeed the lowest fare shown by Travelocity. The next panel listed $485 on American, followed by Delta at $1,241. Deep in the results below was a United flight for $572—not the best price, but less than half of what Delta was charging, and Delta got pride of placement. As for Orbitz, it says up by the search field, “Most low fares made easy.” Note the word most: Orbitz doesn’t list every airline. For a round-trip flight from Atlanta to Long Beach, California, Orbitz came up with $272 on American Airlines, with a stop each way. But on its site, JetBlue was selling nonstop round trips for $213.50. JetBlue is equally to blame, because it refuses to sell its flights at other online agencies. Ditto for Southwest.


Sites including , Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz contract for special rates from hotels and sell them at whatever price the market will bear. calls these discounted rooms Special Values—and they usually get displayed first on searches, even if they’re not the best rates. And, despite a low-price guarantee, doesn’t always have the lowest rates. It quoted $170 at New York City’s Helmsley Park Lane; for the same nights, came up with $150. ( will match any lower price found within 24 hours, but that’s just another way of saying the consumer has to do the work of finding a lower rate elsewhere.)

So how do you get around the cozy relationship between travel suppliers, advertisers, and booking sites? First, always reorder your search results: When looking for a hotel at Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, or, you’ll initially see each company’s preferred vendors. But at Expedia, for example, the results can be listed by price, with the least expensive at the top. Look for the box that says “Sort by.”

Next, shop smart and often. Perusing one or two sites doesn’t cut it. Check a variety of online sources, starting with major booking sites and moving on to airlines’ own sites, such as Use free booking tools that search all available vendors, such as SideStep and Travelaxe (), which scours prices at hundreds of hotels. A word of caution: Because SideStep and Travelaxe must be downloaded onto your hard drive, they can track which travel booking sites you visit.

Copyright © 2003 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.