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Testing out the new ‘low fare’ searches

Travelocity's Fare Watcher and Orbitz's Deal Detector claim to take the work out of searching for low fares, but our test shows that they only frustrate the process.
Image: North Carolina
Planning a vacation? New travel services claim to take the legwork out of finding airfares. But as the old adage says, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

The competition for your business is heating up among online travel sites.  While they all claim to offer the lowest fares to your destination, increasingly they have started to rely on bells and whistles to attract customers' attention. 

Case in point: new services from both Travelocity and Orbitz that claim to take the legwork out of finding airfares. Here's the pitch:  You tell them the dates you want to travel, the price you want to pay, and they track price fluctuations and email you the deals. There is no obligation to purchase and you can have them search multiple routes and dates to increase the chances for finding a better deal. All you have to do is check your email. But as the old adage says, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The Deal Detector vs. The Fare Watcher

We did two test runs of Travelocity's “Fare Watcher” and Orbitz's “Deal Detector” to see for ourselves how well they really work. Our first test bombed—not only did we set our test prices too low, we based our bids on pre-tax sale fares we had seen advertised. Since Orbitz includes tax in its pricing (Travelocity doesn't), the fares we were going for ended up being between $75 and $100 less than market rates. So what we got was silence; neither Travelocity nor Orbitz is set up to alert users when their bids are far too low, which leads to the question how are users supposed to know what they should be willing to pay? It's an important question if this type of service is ever going to work.

We did a bit better on our second round of bids. We chose to compare the Fare Watcher and the Deal Detector based on three different trips, all scheduled for May 11-18, 2004. In deciding our flight pairs and target prices, we picked figures on average $10 less than the current lowest published fares, including taxes and fees. Our picks were:

  • Chicago to Denver at $187 R/T
  • Boston to Paris at $500 R/T
  • New York to Los Angeles at $220 R/T

Orbitz only allows users to request information for three flights at a time with this service, so we limited ourselves to that (with Travelocity one can enter up to five flights).

How they work

To use both the Deal Detector and the Fare Watcher, you must sign up for a membership with the site. Although it is free, it's an additional step that might discourage some users; especially those who don't like unwanted emails about hotel deals. Membership provides you with a username and password, which you need to have to access booking features. Both services are designed to email you when your preferred price is reached, but you don't have to wait to get the email: you can see the lowest current airfare for your personalized itinerary on their websites at any time.

Travelocity's Fare Watcher (www.travelocity.com/farewatcher) offers users a myriad of ways to track prices; it can set the Fare Watcher for three months, six months, indefinitely, or until a given date. But while you can search for all of these periods of travel, you can't actually search for specific travel dates. Odd but true. So you might get an email saying that that coveted $100 round-trip is now available, but if you're traveling to a wedding or for a business meeting and need to fly on specific dates, you could be out of luck. (Prices tend to vary greatly depending on the day of the week you travel). After entering departure and arrival cities, you have your choice of three notification options. Either you can track the fluctuation of the current price, to be alerted when the price goes up or down $25 or, as we chose, to be alerted when the fare goes below a set price.

Orbitz's Deal Detector (www.orbitz.com/dealdetector) allows up to three searches for travel on specific days, as compared to Travelocity's open date range. To activate the Deal Detector, you enter departure and destination points, leave and return dates, number of travelers, and the target price. The Deal Detector also has the option of adding ‘bonus days” to widen the search to one day before or after set dates. This feature recognizes that prices can vary day-to-day, allowing travelers with flexibility the chance at a better deal. Alerts are then sent via email when prices fall below your chosen price. Unlike Travelocity, Orbitz eliminates the guesswork by listing only flights with available seats on your travel days and includes taxes and fees in advertised prices.

How they worked out  

Immediately after activating the Travelocity Fare Watcher (for our second test), results on the website showed that each of my set prices had been reached. But after booking through the given fares, we found that “some taxes, additional fees apply” meaning that these supposedly amazing deals were actually $25-$150 more than what was shown. Despite Travelocity's less-than-forthright pricing, I was able to book a direct flight from Chicago to Denver, including taxes and fees, for just $4 more than we set out to pay.

Bingo, it worked, at least on one. But since Orbitz had not met any of the prices, we decided to step back and allow both services to do their work, and see what deals made their way to my inbox.   

The next morning, we received our first email notice from Travelocity, stating that prices had changed. They said that a “new” fare from Boston to Paris was available, but it turned out to be the exact same fare they had advertised to me the day before. The email also said that the fare for the flight from Chicago to Denver had gone up. The only real alert we got from the email was a mention that prices were on the rise and we should book now, not exactly the news we were hoping for. Taking the hint, we booked the Boston to Paris flight, which after taxes, was $521 (and disappointingly over the price of $500 that we were trying to beat). 

A few days later, Orbitz caught up, sending its first fare notification, saying they had met my price for both the Chicago to Denver trip and the New York to Los Angeles trip. According to the Deal Detector, we could book a flight to Denver, including taxes and fees, for ten dollars less than my preferred price. Would we take it? Heck no! The low fare only applied to an itinerary involving a nasty layover on both legs of the trip and an annoying 3am arrival at my destination. We might have been looking for a deal, but we weren't willing to sacrifice the trip over it. 

At first glance, the Orbitz fare from New York to Los Angeles was also a loser, with a layover in Detroit and a red-eye return. But scrolling down the page, the Deal Detector showed another fare just $2 more than our set price that allowed us to fly non-stop with much more flexibility in flight times.

The silence is deafening

Sticking to our goal of meeting or beating the initial prices while relying on Orbitz and Travelocity to do the work for us, we waited for more emails, and deals, to come. But they didn't. We never heard from Orbitz about our planned trip from Boston to Paris and Travelocity gave us the cold shoulder on the cross-country hop from New York to Los Angeles.

That doesn't mean, however, that the prices remained stable. When when we last checked the Travelocity website, our Fare Watcher page advertised a new lower price for Chicago to Denver. But we never received an email alert for the change, which made us question how many other low fares we had missed.

More problems were on the way: when attempting to book this fare, we found that it was not available for our departure day, but was available for the return. Because of this difference, we could not book the fare through the Fare Watcher and had just wasted another ten minutes on another dead end. I soon found that if I had just picked another Tuesday in May, I could have gotten my fare: with one connection, I could fly from Chicago to Denver roundtrip for $182, including taxes, beating my initial price. Another fifteen minutes to figure that one out, with no help from Travelocity.  

Conclusion? There are a variety of different ways to use both Travelocity's Fare Watcher and Orbitz's Deal Detector and to be fair we didn't test them all. Nonetheless, after following both services, we question their reliability at actively pursuing price changes and providing up-to-date notifications. Of the three trips, we were only able to make one satisfactory booking using the email alerts. Had we actually been using the services to book these trips rather than just testing them out, we would have thrown in the towel early on.