The world is huge

Don't miss any of it

Travel news, itineraries, and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.


Where to Search for the Best Airfare

You’ve probably already used one of the big online airfare search systems, and you learned they work well for most ordinary coach/economy round trips. But if you’re looking for student or senior fares, or want to check a date range, or prefer to fly premium economy, or want to compare fares, including fees, no one search site really serves your purpose. I checked 10 sites for specialized search capability: the three big online travel agencies—Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity—six popular aggregators—FareCompare, Kayak, Mobissimo, SideStep, SmarterTravel’s sister site TripAdvisor, and Vayama—plus the demonstration beta site of startup TruPrice. And I found some substantial differences: {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}Flexible dates. Airfares often vary from day to day, sometimes by a large amount. Many airline sites allow you to determine whether changing your referred itinerary travel a few days plus or minus can cut your fare. Among the large sites, Expedia, FareCompare, Orbitz, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor allow you to indicate that you’re flexible, in advance and before you enter any dates. The sites vary a bit, however, in the amount of flexibility they can accommodate:

  • Expedia, FareCompare, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor provide for flexible date searches for months in advance; Expedia’s search is limited to “popular U.S. routes.”
  • Orbitz provides flexible date searches up to 30 days.

Fee-Inclusive Fares. Extra fees have become a major element of total airfare costs, and including extra fees for checked baggage, various seating options, meals, and beverages in your initial fare comparisons is increasingly important. So far, however, only two sites facilitate this comparison:

  • TripAdvisor combines fee selection into the system immediately after your initial entries, and it includes most fees you’re likely to encounter.
  • TruPrice’s full search system is still in a beta-demonstrator phase, so it lacks the current functionality that you get with TripAdvisor. However, when fully implemented, the TruPrice system will give you an even wider choice of extra-fee services.

Premium Economy. The big online agencies are largely ignoring premium economy. Only three large aggregator sites—Kayak, SideStep, and Vayama—provide premium economy as a search option. Given that the importance of premium economy seems to be growing, at least on long-haul intercontinental routes, the failure of the big online agencies to deal with it is something of a puzzle. Of course, airlines that offer premium economy post fares on their own sites, but searching individually can be a hassle.

Senior Fares. Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity all provide for entering the number of senior (65-plus) travelers in your initial search. However, none of these sites covers Southwest, the only domestic line that still offers a set of sometimes-useful senior fares, and I haven’t been able to find a single instance of a reduced senior fare on any other line for years. If some airlines still sell them, they’re few and far between. However, if you’re a senior, there’s no downside to asking for a senior fare—the worst that can happen is that you get the same fare as everyone else.

Student/Youth Fares. As with senior fares, special deals for students and youth seem to have largely evaporated, at least on major domestic routes. However, a few airlines may still offer special student deals—typically, for extended stays that may exceed the maximum-stay limits on some cheap adult round-trip fares. At any rate, Vayama provides an option to search for student fares, and Orbitz provides a search option for “youth.” When I was researching this story, I couldn’t find any student/youth fares that were any lower than regular adult fares, but there may be some. Again, if you qualify, searching for possible student/youth deals has no downside.

Clearly, the “best” single site for any fare search depends on your current search priorities—no one approach covers all the options. Also, keep in mind that the main online agencies and aggregators constantly try to one-up their competitors, so the situation I found in August may be very different in November.

Your Turn

On what airfare search site do you have the best luck yielding results? Share your experiences by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Top Fares From