Booking air travel on the Internet used to be a simplified process. You went to Travelocity, Expedia, or relied on your internal business travel coordinators to set it all up. There wasn't much thinking involved: you entered a date and time, saw the available flights, and likely booked a package deal including hotels, car rentals, and more.
As the Internet and mobile apps continue to evolve, new companies have continued that disrupt that process, providing consumers a myriad of information on best times to buy, fare deals, and more. But how do you sift through that information and simplify the process?
"Part of the problem in the past was that people traveled to gain status with certain companies," says Aaron Strout, the head of location-based marketing at global communications firm WCG and co-author of the upcoming Location-Based Marketing for Dummies. "Maybe they had a genuine loyalty to certain airlines, but it was mostly a lack of transparency and the airlines not having to offer deals. When sites like Kayak came around, it made the searchability of cheap flights so much easier for all consumers considerably easier, and a price comparison type of shopping, which we've always had."
There are a lot of airfare websites including Kayak, TripAdvisor, Yapta, Bing, Orbitz, Dohop, Vayama, and Momondo. All are very good options and a good place to start, but what do they all have in common? They all use specific algorithms to find the best deals based on the details you input. So what's the problem? As George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog, notes, "fares fluctuate just like the stock market," often lasting only a few hours or mere minutes at that rate after it initially announced. Moreover, computer algorithms don't always pick that up, so the fares found are only a partial listing. That's where Airfarewatchdog, this year's Business Travel 50 pick for the best airfare alerts site, simplifies the process. Unlike fare alerts that might hit your e-mail inbox once a day or once a week (delayed by filters and more), Airfarewatchdog's updates to Twitter, Facebook, and its blog, are instant information.
"The unadvertised sales are hands-down the best deals," notes the Hobica, who has written about travel for multiple publications throughout his career and who is based in New York. "What makes us different is that our staff, scattered remotely around the country, includes former airline employees, travel agents, and more that know how to find those deals and instantly let you know about them. That's the difference of having the human touch, because the best fare deals are simply not advertised, and we let you know about it as soon as the deal is relevant.'
On a recent Tuesday in New York City, Hobica was visibly excited about a $500 round-trip fare between Newark and Honolulu, one of his favorite destinations. It lasted only a few hours though. Scouring his company's site (which he sold to Expedia in 2008 but operates independently) later that day, I discovered a myriad of round-trip flight deals that really were amazing: from Newark to Las Vegas for $198, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for $18, and from Atlanta to Phoenix for $168. This is just a small sampling of the types of deals Hobica's team finds, and then subsequently posts on the different social networks. Why post it there? Because that's where consumers are.
Getting set up on Airfarewatchdog is actually rather simple. You can set up alerts from your favorite airport, or also subscribe to "Arrival City Fare Alerts" to alert you when fares from everywhere else are cheaper to your hometown. You can also visit the website itself to see the best deals of the day in your own market and everywhere else. If a nearby airport has a ridiculous deal, you can likely find another way to get there that in the end still ends up saving you large amounts.
"Even if you're checking out a lot of the deal sites out constantly, you may never see the best deals from the airlines," he says. "To see those, you actually need to follow the airlines themselves and look for promo codes—which exist most regularly on their own websites or occasionally on Twitter, but not on those deal-aggregation sites."
Is there a best time to buy, as many have often noted? It's true that airlines release discounted fares on Mondays and Wednesdays, but that's one of the worst-kept secrets, so everyone else is looking for those deals. That being said, business travelers tend to leave town on Sunday or Monday, while leisure travelers look for weekend fares. So if you can schedule your business trips mid-week (leaving Tuesday or Wednesday), you can save some considerable cash. Perhaps most importantly, if you have flexibly travel dates, that's where you can save big. Almost every site offers a "flexible date" search option to broaden your search.
"There is no science to it, to be quite honest," Hobica says. "A huge price drop on a route you want to fly could happen at any second of the week. Not only do the airlines regularly adjust airfares themselves, but they often tweak the number of seats offered at that low fare. Someone could be holding the last seat at the cheapest fare and decide to cancel, and if you're there at that time, it's yours to snap up."
Beyond sites like Airfarewatchdog, Kayak and more, it's still a great practice to sign up for airline-specific e-mails, where many airlines will offer better deals to click through and book specifically on their website. Some airlines, specifically Southwest and Allegiant Airlines, only sell fares directly on their websites, so to get the deal you have to actually go there. And to take the guesswork out, do a Google search for "airfare alerts" and sign up for a few different options. Research really is king, as the amount of information available has made us extremely informed travelers.
So, where does the future of deals lie? According to Strout, location-based services such as GoWalla could make a huge play in the market pretty soon.
"Gowalla is already focused on travel and entertainment," Strout says. "So it's not far off to imagine them coming in and based on the past history of your check-ins (at hotels, airports, restaurants and more) as an intermediary or to partner up with some airlines or a deal aggregator themselves. They could offer not just deals after you told them what your preferences were, but actually based on data and behaviors they've seen and preferences via your already existing data stream. That could be huge."