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Why You Now Need a New Airfare-Search Strategy

One of the big reasons travel became one of the Internet’s earliest “killer apps” was the ability of online travel agencies (OTA) and search systems to present every line’s airfares for a given trip on an “even playing field.” Originally, that playing field was really even. On each airline, a coach fare got you a seat, a checked bag, some sort of food at mealtimes, and, on most lines, a pre-assigned seat. The side-by-side comparisons were, in fact, apples to apples. Sadly, those days are about to disappear. Airlines are building bumps and tilts on that playing field. And the result is that you’re going to work harder to find your best deals:

Basically, airlines never liked those even-playing-field fare displays; in truth, they don’t really like even playing fields at all:

Related: Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide

  • They added the first bump in the playing field when most of them went to some degree of “a la carte” pricing for their lowest fares. They unbundled their total fare into a base plus fees for extra features. But, in many cases, different lines unbundled different elements of the service.
  • Some lines added the next bump by re-bundling service element combinations into different fare levels. The lowest level got nothing beyond a seat on a plane, but the next level up might include a checked bag, earlier boarding or a lower change fee. Only a few OTAs and search engines have the ability to post those individual fare levels.
  • More recently, Delta announced it would remove its fare displays completely from some big OTAs. This move may be permanent, with Delta’s joining Southwest in limiting fare information to third parties. But it could also be a ploy to negotiate lower payments to the several third parties in the online process. We’ll see.
  • Lufthansa erected the latest bump—in fact, two bumps. It announced that, starting this September, it would add a 16-euro fee (about $18USD) to a ticket bought anywhere other than on its own website, a ticket office or an airport counter. And it has started to require that some metasearch websites—the ones that don’t sell tickets but instead display prices with links to the actual ticket sellers—not allow any fare displays lower than the display on the Lufthansa website. Competitors are taking a hard look at the idea.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what’s going on here. Airlines want you to buy tickets through their own websites (1) to lower their payments to the global distribution systems, the outfits that furnish fare data to OTAs, and (2) to steer you toward buying more expensive fare bundles. But this is something of a zero-sum game. What the airlines gain, consumers lose. The Travel Technology Association says consumers will lose something like $6 billion a year if OTAs and metasearch engines can’t display competitive fare information.

Related: Secrets to Booking the Cheapest Summer Europe Flight Ever

Although some observers consider this an inter-industry fight, it means that you, as a consumer, will face a tougher time locating the best deals for any upcoming trips:

  • Start out with an OTA or metasearch website to get a feel for what’s available.
  • Next, decide exactly what extras you want, such as checked baggage, seat assignment, food, early boarding, extra legroom and whatever else you want on your flight.
  • Price those extras on each airline’s own website, and look for fare bundles that might include some or all of them.
  • Figure and compare your total cost, fare plus extras, buying through the airline or an OTA.

Related: The Sneaky New Way Airlines Are Raising Fares

In theory, search engines could help you by allowing you to enter whatever extras you want at the start of a search and by then computing comparative total costs on an equal basis. So far, however, nobody seems to be doing that.

For now, you’re on your own. And the various third-party airfare bulletins can alert you to good promotions and deals. But the bottom line is that, for the foreseeable future, you’ll have to spend more time online.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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