Cheaper Airfares Step 2: Use an airfare aggregator
Let an aggregator automatically search all the booking engines, airline sites, travel agencies, and airfare discounters in the blink of an eye
Let me be blunt. If I could check only one kind of website before booking an airfare, it would be an aggregator.
I could quite happily then proceed to book my plane tickets knowing that there is only the smallest chance a better fare is out there. (Well, OK, I would want a chance to check the consolidators as well first.)
When looking into buying plane tickets on the Internet, you probably do what most people do: check one or more of the famous search engines and booking sites—Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity—then pick the best price you can find and book the tickets.
Congratulations. Chances are pretty strong that you just overpaid for your airfare.
Search Southwest yourself
Sadly, Southwest Airlines sues any aggregator that tries to include its prices in their meta-searches. This is a pain, but since Southwest offers such stellar service (including free bags!), it pays to make that quick extra stop at southwest.com when you are checking domestic flights. While the three big booking engines often do offer excellent fares—sometimes, indeed, the best available out there—there are other booking engines—both smaller ones and foreign ones that aren't as well marketed to the U.S. audience—not to mention many consolidators (wholesalers), airfare discounters, and online travel agencies, all of which might very well have even lower fares.
If nothing else, the big three booking engines always charge you a modest fee—just $5 to $10 (and, during the doldrums of the 2008/09 economic slump, some began waiving even that), but still…
You use a kind of automated personal shopper called an aggregator.
Enter the aggregators
Price aggregators such as Momondo.com and Kayak.com—also known as "meta–search engines," since they search the search engines for you—are a different breed of web critter. These Web sites are looking to preempt all the big search engine bookers (Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity) by batch-searching most of the airfare sales sites for you, directly and all at once (well, it might take 10 or 20 seconds).
Most aggregators will run your itinerary through dozens upon dozens of cheap fare sites, individual airline Web sites (not just the major airlines, but smaller carriers and low-cost airlines ones as well), discounters, consolidators, and traditional travel agencies and come up with their answers.
This saves you the hassle of opening up a dozen browser windows and keep clicking back and forth through them all, sifting for the best prices.
In other words, aggregators will tell you know only the going rates at the Big Three, but also survey the majority of all the other prices available out there.
They aren't perfect, of course.
One drawback to meta-searching—and to the big search engine bookers, for that matter—is that many times an individual airline will have a special sale going on, or its Web site features an option that lets you be fuzzier about departure and arrival times and dates. Either of those situations may generate much lower fares than the sort of straight search most meta-search engines (or booking sites) performs.
The bots at Momondo and company are always getting smarter about figuring that sort of thing out for you—but they're not yet perfect. So use these resources at your own risk. they can be a good way to sort through and compare all the sites with ease, but you may miss that incredibly cheap needle when you're looking at the whole haystack at once.
Meet the Airfare Aggregators
Momondo.com (www.momondo.com) - Before I get into details, just know this: 95% of the time, I find the lowest fares on Momondo. Yes, Momondo quietly blows most of the other aggregators out of the water. It searches more than 600 airline sites, plus booking engines, search engines, travel agencies, online discounters, etc. This is two to three times as many sources as the competition—including the low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines most of the other search engines ignore—and it pays off.
You can also quickly see which flight is cheapest and which uiest (and which best overall), as well as use all the usual filters on the results (length of flight, departure/arrival times, number of stops, airlines, etc.).
I ran Momondo through many tests, and it almost always found the lowest available fares on domestic, Transatlantic, and inter-European flights. It found fares from carriers none of the others did, and when it did find the same flights as some of the competition, it almost invariably managed to find a lower price for it. For now, at least, I'm calling it: Momondo is the single best resource out there, bar none.
Skyscanner (Skyscanner.net) - Anotehr excellent aggregator that, like Momondo, also includes the little low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines ignored by most other search engines. I like that you can be as vague on your departure/arrivial points as simply an entire country, rather than a specific city of airport—you never know when, say, a flght into Bologna will actually be cheaper than one to Rome or Milan.
CheapFlights (www.cheapflights.com) - You get a great overview of all the prices you might pay for a particular route.
Vayama.com (www.vayama.com) - Only does international fares, and claims access to airfares unavailable to the general public. It has come out the price champ on a few searches, so it always pays to check.
DoHop.com (www.dohop.com) - This is also a good aggregator service, and another of the few that puts a premium on including low cost airlines in its results. This seems to me like a no-brainier way to ensure you'll get the lowest fares, but for some reason only Momondo and Skyscanner seem to agree.
Hipmunk (www.hipmunk.com) - The aggregator that rethought how searches should be delivered—and I always like those who think outside the search box. All results are shown on a timeline, and the default sort-order for flights that match your search is "Agony"—a combination factoring in price, flight duration, and stopovers—so that the least annoying options pop up first. You can also sort more traditionally by price, duration, departure time, arrival time, non-stop only, and ask it to favor your preferred airlines (or airline alliance). One drawback: It really only serarches the airlines directly plus a few booking engines like Orbitz and Airfare.com, so you're not getting the full story (no discounters are in the mix). Still: handy.
Mobissimo.com (www.mobissimo.com) - Another excellent aggregator.
Google Flights (www.google.com/flights) - Google has acquired ITA, the original airfare booking engine long used by travel agents. It's now available to the general public, and niftily shows you the rough current lowest cost for flights to pretty much anywhere from your hometown via a Google map measled with red dots marking major cities around the world. It doesn't allow you to book, but will tell you where/how to book the results it finds.