You are looking to book a vacation but want the cheapest possible airfare . There are countless Web sites out there with airfare searches, but some offer substantially cheaper flights than others. Most travelers will scour several sites before actually booking a ticket.
So we decided to put 10 of our favorite sites to the test. We looked at cost, flight options and ease of use. The idea was to look at five random itineraries and see which site offered the best fares.
The results will surprise you. While some trips were nearly identical across the board, others differed dramatically from site to site.
All searching was done Friday, Oct. 30. The trips selected were: New York to Denver from Nov. 26 to Nov. 29 (nothing like a little Thanksgiving travel, the lessons of which can now be applied to Christmas), Chicago to London from Dec. 14 to Dec. 21, Nashville to Omaha from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10, San Francisco to Houston from Nov. 19 to Nov. 23 and, finally, Minneapolis to Miami from Jan. 10 to Jan. 15.
We should note that none of these sites include Southwest Airlines, which likes to keep its system to itself and not pay out booking referral fees. (For our search, this did not matter because Southwest was not cheaper on any of the routes.)
This might be one of the big powerhouses of the travel industry, but when looking for airfare, we found the site was clunky and not cheaper than any of the others. Travelocity no longer charges to book flights and, like other sites, guarantees that if you book a vacation package and the fare drops (the exact same flights and hotel on the same dates), you will get that lower price.
The real annoyance here was that Travelocity kept trying to sell us hotel rooms. Also, the price here wasn't extremely clear. The price (with taxes and fees) was listed but not displayed as large as the initial price. Finally, Travelocity automatically clicked the "yes" button next to purchasing additional flight protection for $39.95 a person on our London flight.
Our searches on the site averaged 20 seconds.
For New York to Denver, the cheapest Travelocity fare was $419 with tax, with one stop on United. The cheapest nonstop was $432 on Delta. We eventually found two nonstop flights for $403 on other sites (we'll get to that in a minute) leaving on Delta and returning on Continental.
Chicago to London didn't fare much better. The best Travelocity gave us was a $836 nonstop on American Airlines. Three other sites (Expedia, Fly.com and ITASoftware) gave us $829 nonstop, leaving on United and coming back on BMI. (Hey, it's $7.) Travelocity didn't show the cheaper one-stop connections, including a popular $811 on KLM that several other sites provided and two other options we found on other sites for $805 and $807.
Check Out Travelocity for San Francisco to Houston
All 10 sites we reviewed came in with Midwest Airlines as the cheapest airfare for the Nashville to Omaha route. Travelocity matched the cheapest fare we found, $251. (Only one site, Cheapoair, had the same ticket for higher: $279.90.)
Travelocity was the winner for the San Francisco to Houston route, giving us a $411 nonstop on a US Airways flight operated by United and $345 for an Alaska-Continental one-stop package.
Finally, for the Minneapolis to Miami itinerary, Travelocity and eight of the other sites found us the exact same deals: $266 with one stop on AirTran or $315 nonstop on Delta or Northwest (now the same airline). Again, the only outlier was Cheapoair, which was higher at $290 for the AirTran flights and $339 for the nonstops.
The site layout here is very similar to Travelocity, and the company also doesn't charge any booking fees. Expedia was among one of the sites with the cheapest airfare for the New York to Denver route. We also found a $10 cheaper fare here for the Nashville to Omaha trip, but we wouldn't have learned the flight times or airline until the purchase was made. (Our review did not include Priceline and Hotwire, which will often sell cheaper tickets under such conditions.)
And while Expedia was cheaper than Travelocity on the Chicago to London trip, we noticed that the American Airlines flights given to us by Travelocity were $45 more on Expedia. Searches here averaged about 23 seconds.
Most of the flights here were competitive with the other sites. For Chicago to London, Orbitz found the $811 one-stop flight on KLM and the United/BMI nonstop, although the Orbitz price was $10 more than some other sites.
One of the nice features of this site was that it showed you both the outbound and inbound flights on one screen. Several other sites made us click through a few pages to get all the details about our journey. Searches here was just 17 seconds during our average test.
Sidestep and Kayak
These two sites have now merged and while they operate two independent URLs, the sites are identical in use. Once the destinations are entered, it automatically pops up a calendar, before we entered the dates showing various fares with the cheapest days to travel. It also asks us if we want to try to search for weekend flights or even multiple weekends. For the advanced user, it is great, as it lets you customize flight times, airlines and airports.
The two sites don't actually act as ticket agents, instead they refer users to sites like Orbitz or CheapTickets to actually buy the ticket. The prices on most searches were comparable with the average, but neither site took the prize for the cheapest ticket. Searches here averaged 14 seconds.
This site turned out to be the biggest disappointment for us. There were way too many clicks required to find the total fee with taxes. Each fare then had a $10 "instant discount promotion" but even with that savings built in, we didn't find the prices to be any cheaper.
For instance, on the Nashville to Omaha trip, the price was $279.90, nearly $29 more than the fare found on every other site we tested.
We did find the cheapest trip from Chicago to London here but it was on a "major airline" that the site didn't name, for $805.65. Cheapoair did give us the flight number and with a quick Google search of "flight 958 Chicago London" we learned that the "major airline" was United. (The return legs were already listed as a flight on Lufthansa, stopping in Munich.)
Our one other major complaint came when we tried to search only for nonstop flights and kept getting that same Lufthansa flight stopping in Munich. We're not quite sure what Cheapoair's definition of nonstop is, but we consider landing in Munich on our way from London to Chicago a stop.
Searches averaged 23 seconds.
This site comes from the folks at TravelZoo and had some nice features but did not always come up with the best price. When searching, we instinctively clicked on a button that led us to another booking site, such as Travelocity, to find the exact flights and not always the cheapest flights. But by clicking the "details" button, we easily brought up more information and showed the cheapest sites to do the booking. For instance, clicking on "details" showed us that Travelocity wanted $652.10 for a ticket that would have cost only $642.80 to buy on United.com, for the same exact flights.
Fly.com also gave us another one of those blind fare options through booking site Vayama. The $785 fare from Chicago to London (the best we could find) would reveal the airlines once booked. But looking at the limited data, it appeared to be the United nonstop and the Lufthansa one-stop return.
Searches averaged 18 seconds.
This is a simple, bare bones system that can be manipulated to show advanced users all sorts of options. You can't book a ticket here but once you find that lowest fare, you can go to the airline's site and book the flights. The software here is the back-end system used by several of the other sites listed here.
Instead of the traditional "search nearby airports" it lets you search airports within 25, 50, 75, 100, up to 300 miles away from your search, which can sometimes be more helpful. It also has weekend and month-long searches like several other sites. Searches here averaged 18 seconds.
This site won on the New York to Denver route with a $403 nonstop leaving on Delta and returning on Continental. It also tied many of the others on the other routes. It also notes on the original search screen if there are airport changes, long or short layovers, overnight flights and flights that are on props instead of jets.
This site also doesn't handle your booking, but searches several of the big sites and then redirects users to the best fare. It is a great site for travelers who want to get away, but don't have a specific destination in mind. Once we put in our departure city, a list of getaway deals popped up. Once we entered our destination, a calendar showed up comparing prices on various days to fly.
The one downside was that it kept trying to pop out other search sites, doing the same search, in another window. Each time, we had to manually unclick that function.
The prices here were never higher than any of the other sites. But they weren't cheaper either. FareCompare just listed the other site's prices and redirected us to Ortiz or Cheaptickets or another site, depending on the search. The average search here took just 16 seconds. (FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney writes a weekly travel column for ABCNews.com.)
Tickets here were cheap but not necessarily the cheapest. For instance, on Chicago to London, the best fare we could find was $836 on the United and BMI nonstops. Other sites had those same flights for about $6 cheaper and some cheaper one-stop options. The New York to Denver fare was comparable with other sites but, again, not the cheapest. The site was the fastest for us, averaging just under 12 seconds for each search.
Microsoft's search engine took over the former Farecast.com site and turned it into a travel search site.
The biggest difference here is that the site predicts whether an airfare is likely to go down or up in the next week. Some people love the service, others call it more of a gimmick. Bing won out on the San Francisco to Houston route, finding us cheap flights through Orbitz. It also found a flight we had not seen elsewhere for the Chicago to London trip: $807 on SAS with one-stop, returning on United. Bing found that flight through Vayama. Searches here averaged 12 seconds.