So you think you bought the cheapest airfare?
Well, airline best fare guarantees, which pledge to provide the lowest fare online or to reimburse you the difference, only occasionally measure up.
I am going to pick on Delta Air Lines, where I am a Diamond Medallion Member, but the point applies to just about every other airline, too.
Delta has its Best Fare Guarantee, which is designed to give you confidence that you can shop on Delta.com and get the lowest fare.
However the Best Fare Guarantee has several restrictions that Delta can potentially hide behind. And, the technology behind Delta.com provides you with limited answers and sometimes poor-flight selections.
Milan to Seattle
Here's just one example to illustrate the point about Delta.com not always being the go-to-resource for low fares.
I ran Milan to Seattle fare searches, departing June 12 and returning June 21, on Orbitz.com, powered by ITA Software, and Delta.com, which uses a combination of technologies. I verified that I would get consistent answers by using different browsers and machines.
The two sites came up with very different results.
The fares and flight durations on Orbitz.com were lower and shorter, respectively, than on Delta.com. And, Orbitz offered more choice -- 206 results vs 17 on Delta.com.
Delta.com ordered the results by lowest price from Euro 1034.50 ($1,322.38) to Euro 1589.85 ($2,032.28). And, flight times for outbound flights ranged from 18 hours and 30 mins to 37 hours and 8 minutes. (Yes, that means you would overnight at least once despite flying westbound.) And, Delta.com returned only 17 results.
The flight results on Orbitz.com were clearly superior. Orbitz’s first page alone showed 25 results, with fares ranging from $1030 to $1074, and with flight times ranging from 13 hours and 55 minutes to 16 hours and 55 minutes.
Thus, the Orbitz results showed lower fares and flight times of shorter duration.
Delta.com has made it very unlikely that you would have found the lowest Milan to Seattle fare and Delta doesn't provide the most practical itineraries.
At other times, Delta.com is too focused on a particular control showing ONLY the lowest price, where no lower published fares are possible, up to the first 25 results. This is fine for domestic fares, but lousy for international fares.
With its focus on lowest fares, Delta neglects logical fares and itineraries. For example, if there is merely a $1 difference between a nonstop and a one-stop, Delta chooses the one-stop with the lower fare.
Orbitz uses a different set of algorithms based on ITA’s engine. It approaches the problem differently. As a result, in many cases Orbitz finds better results, particularly for international searches, as the Milan to Seattle example shows.
Delta is biting the bullet and is considering moving to ITA (or at least it apparently was until this “glitch” drew widespread media attention). Reports say Delta frequent flyers were retrieving sometimes-higher fares than other travelers based on the airline trying out a new provider and using Delta's current provider, as well.
Although there is speculation that the new provider was ITA, a Delta spokesman declined to name the third party technology being tested.
These issues and the Milan to Seattle example point to the conundrum that you think you found the lowest fare, then consider that flight results can be very inconsistent.
The issues with Delta.com or other airline websites also raise the question: Do airlines try to provide their lowest fares all the time?
The jury is out on that subject, but I don’t think airlines try hard enough to provide the cheapest fares to all of their users.
But I also don't I think the airlines deliberately push higher fares at their better customers, as this recent article -- which is unsubstantiated, in my opinion, suggests.
And, do travel agents always push the lowest possible fares to their customers? The obvious answer is no.
A travel agent will recommend fares that are not the absolute lowest because business travelers often change their itineraries, and thus the reduction of risk and the possibilities of changes become more important than the absolute lowest fares.
In turn, this contributes to the fact that agencies generally charge higher fares than online sites. Thus, average fares on online sites are much lower than via an offline travel agent -- not because agents are bad or lazy -- but because they are providing a service and not basing everything on only one metric -- price.
So now do you think you usually find the cheapest fares?
Hardly! That's because airlines deliberately make it difficult for you to find the best airfare.
I hope your brain hurts from reading this -- and I deliberately simplified it.
Sadly, inconsistent results from intermediaries and airlines drive so much unproductive searching.
Perhaps the key question is: Does anyone want to change this?
Note: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock