J.D. is on vacation in Alaska. This guest post by G.E. Miller gives a real-life example of trying to find the cheapest airfare online. For more from G.E., check out 20somethingfinance.com, where he covers personal-finance matters for young professionals.

At one time or another, we’ve all been a day late and a few air miles short when purchasing a plane ticket. So we turn to the internet. But with all the bargain travel sites out there, which ones truly offer the best deals on a consistent basis? Surely, there must be a spectacular site out there that’s going to get me the cheapest flight every time, right?

Testing the Premier Airfare Sites
I thought it would be fun — and educational — to actually go through a real-life example with a test flight that:

  • Departs Atlanta, non-stop flight to L.A. (LAX) at any time on March 8.
  • Departs L.A. (LAX), non-stop flight to Atlanta at any time, March 13.

So let’s dive in and take a look at the different types of airfare sites out there to see how they perform. The first step to finding the best deal is knowing what the business models are for the sites offering these tickets. Knowing this will result in some time savings and myth busting.

J.D.’s note: G.E. and I are working on this article in early March, which is why he’s using these dates. But the article itself won’t go up until May.

Direct Airfare-Booking Sites
We’ve all heard of these guys. They’ve seemingly been around since the advent of travel booking online. These sites will book your flight directly with the airline. For the most part, their prices are oddly in line with what the airline is offering directly. But they must make a cut somehow, right? More on this later.

The advantage to using the direct booking agents is that you get to check multiple airlines at once. Here’s what I found in my search:

  • Expedia.com – The cheapest flight was using Airtran. $308 for the ticket, $21.40 in taxes and fees. Total of $329.40.
  • Priceline.com – The exact same flight on Airtran at the exact same price as Expedia.com.
  • Orbitz.com – Hmmm… that’s odd. Same flight and price as Expedia and Priceline.
  • Hotwire.com – $329.40. Starting to sound like a broken record here.
  • Airfare.com – Ouch. Same flight on Airtran, but a bump in price. $326 plus $42 in tax for $368 total. Weird. How could the other three only charge $21.40 in taxes, but Airfare.com charge $42. I’ll leave that one to them to answer.

Airfare Aggregators
Airfare aggregators basically pull from hundreds of booking sites and carrier sites at the time of your search. In theory, this gives them an advantage in that they should be able to find the airfare site with the lowest booking fees. Since you can’t book directly with them and they don’t have direct relationships with the carriers, they are supported by affiliate links to the direct booking agents and other online ads. Let’s give it a shot:

  • Cheapflights – Okay, don’t use these guys. They require you to click on the link to go to the direct airfare booking site in order to even see a price. Not very user-friendly.
  • Mobissimo – My search yielded two pop-up windows to Expedia and Orbitz. I don’t like that. Then it also gave me a link to Airtran’s site for… yep, $329.40.
  • Kayak – Ooooh… I’ve heard good things about these guys. Aw, crap. $329.40 on the Airtran site again.
  • Sidestep – More pop-ups! All for $329.40.

Booking your Flight Direct on the Airline’s Site
When in doubt, turn to the carrier itself. Airtran was the clear winner here over over Delta, who was offering a round trip for $422 . Let’s check their site. You guessed it, folks. $329.40. Oddly, they quote a ticket price of $286.51 and taxes of $42.89, the same tax amount quoted on Airfare.com, which varies from the $21.40 quoted on the other direct booking sites.

Hmmm…. could it be that the other direct booking sites who quoted $21 in taxes were offered a $21 lower price on the tickets than the public and pocketed the $21 difference in ‘taxes’. Someone forgot to send Airfare.com the memo on that one. Oh, and their regular ticket price was higher as well. Another memo.

We didn’t see this in this example, but as we get closer to the departure date, it might be possible that Airtran updates their prices on the site if seats are not filling up. Many airlines are now offering RSS and Twitter feeds so that you can stay on top of special deals and updates.

When Can you Actually Get a Good Deal on a Flight?
As you have seen here, there is definitely collaboration between the airlines and the direct booking sites to offer prices that are consistent. Sorry folks, but there is no silver bullet best airfare price out there. The bottom line is that the carrier is going to offer the same deal to all of the best direct booking agents so as to not tick off the others. But, all hope is not lost. Here are four tips you can use when trying to find the lowest airfare:

  1. The key is to remain flexible. If you know the exact date you want to fly and come back, then the pricing all comes down to how many stops you are willing to make and how much layover time you can stomach in order to keep more money in your savings account.
  2. Flexibility also allows you to wait for deals at the last minute, and to choose from a wider variety of dates and times to get the lowest possible price. To this end, Farecast, now housed as Bing’s flexible travel search can help predict when the the lowest pricing might become available. This is a great tool for the flexible traveler.
  3. And you most certainly want to have flexibility with the carrier you choose. Picking a carrier ahead of time because they have the best generic label peanuts or because they host your favorite frequent-flyer program may not be the best selection criteria. Had I chosen Delta (whom I do have frequent flyer miles with) over Airtran, it may have netted me an overall loss.
  4. Try setting up alerts and RSS feeds for common carriers that fly out of your home airport on a test flight of your own. Take a look at the prices on the day you set up the alerts and see what kind of offers you get. This way, if it’s nothing good, you’re not hung out to dry waiting for a good deal when you really do want to book.

Also see this video from a Get Rich Slowly Video Contest Honorable Mention winner about how she saved $1,000 on airfare.

What strategy do you use to get tickets on the cheap?

Previously at Get Rich Slowly, G.E. has shared articles on reducing your cable bill, compound interest, and buying a home. If you liked this article on how to cut your expenses, check out G.E.’s Ooma review or Net10 review, which go into detail on how he sliced his phone bills in half. Also don’t forget to follow Get Rich Slowly on Facebook and Twitter.

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