Flight Search Engines And The Multi-City Ripoff
from the well-look-at-that dept
It’s no secret that almost no one who isn’t employed by an airline really understands airline pricing, but in playing around with some flight search/booking tools, I recently came across something interesting, suggesting that if you’re doing multi-city tours, it may pay to not let a flight search tool know that. I have a bit of travel coming up in the near future that’s going to involve a bunch of stops. While I was booking the flights, I noticed some oddities. In pre-planning the trip, I had done some spot checks on pricing for flights between various cities — plugging them into Expedia to see what came up, just to get a sense of what the cost would be. However, when it came time to book, I did one big “multi-city” list of flights, and was surprised that what came back seemed significantly more expensive than what my mental estimate had been from the spot check. So I went back, and looked what would happen if I booked each leg individually… and the prices went way down — back to what I had seen with the spot checks. Hmm. In the end, if I had booked the multi-city flights for the exact same flights it would have been more than double the cost than if I booked the flights individually (which I did).
I decided to mess around and see if this was true in other situations and on other travel search engines. Because I really don’t feel like broadcasting my travel plans/flight times/flight dates/destinations to the world, I tried it again with a made up itinerary, which I used to demonstrate the situation below. I did all of the searches within minutes of each other and went back and redid a few of the searches to make sure that my own searches weren’t somehow influencing the pricing (they didn’t — if I went back and did the same searches, I still got the same prices). I will say that on my actual flights, the multi-city price was even higher and the individual flight costs were even lower than with this example that I show, so the spread was even bigger than seen here, though this example still gives a decent spread. First up, here’s my example “multi-city” itinerary as per Expedia:
I was curious if other search engines would show the same thing. First up, was Expedia’s main competitor in being the “big legacy” player, Travelocity. I haven’t used that site in years, and discovered that their interface is incredibly annoying (it also seems to be one of the only flight search engines I can find that doesn’t try to autofill airports as you type). Rather than showing the full package upfront, Travelocity makes me pick each flight, so I did — and picked the exact same flights:
The other thing you might notice is that the final flight on Hipmunk is actually not the same. That’s because, when doing the multicity search, Hipmunk doesn’t even show that 8pm flight. You can see it if I expand out and it shows the final leg options.
After going through all of this, I reached out to folks at Hipmunk, to see if they could explain the result. Hipmunk’s Adam Goldstein kindly explained the basic situation, noting that airlines have all sorts of rules about what tickets can be combined with others. If you’ve never dealt with the insane details of fare classes (which go way beyond seating classes), you can spend way too much time online reading the crazy details. Given that, it seems that it is these kinds of “fare classes” that are the “culprit” — and by “culprit” I mean the way in which the airlines force you into spending much, much, much more than you need to.
That said, Goldstein also argues that there are downsides to buying individual flights. He brings up, as we discussed above, the issue of connecting flights (and also having bags checked all the way through to destination) — but as noted, that doesn’t apply in this situation. He also points out that if you have to “change or cancel your whole trip, you have to pay separate change/cancel fees for each booking, instead of one for the whole thing.” That’s absolutely true, but is that “insurance” worth paying twice as much? I could rebook my entire trip with different times and dates… and basically pay the same total amount. So… that argument doesn’t make much sense.
In the end, it really feels like a scammy way of making fliers pay a lot more than they need to, without them realizing it. What I do know, however, is that if you’re looking for the best deals, do not assume that a multi-city search will turn up the cheapest prices — and also recognize that the different search engines can give out extremely different answers. For example, if price was the only concern, and short flight times/non-stop flights were less important, then obviously that British Airways option at the end is by far the best price — but it turns up on none of the other search engines. However, I’d imagine that most casual fliers have no idea, and I wonder if many people end up booking multi-city flight options, not realizing that they could save a ton by booking the exact same flights individually.