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:
As you can see, three flights, total price: $2,891. Okay, now find the exact same flights on the exact same day and time, but do the searches individually. Here are the results:
Same exact flights. But the individual prices are $494, $723 and $477. That adds up to $1,694. Still kinda pricey for three flights, but well, well, well below $2,891. For the exact same flights. Yes, Expedia might show all of your flights in a single page itinerary on the website, but is that really worth $1,197? Seems doubtful. I mentioned this on Twitter, and someone suggested that the "risk" of booking individually is that they don't know if you're going to miss a connection, which does make sense on flights that are connecting flights. But none of these are. They're all different flights on different airlines on different days.

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:
Now, here's our first clue into what's going on. Even though I very clearly had the box checked for only "coach/economy" seats, Travelocity put me in business class on that last flight. There was no option to change that at all, and other combinations more or less turned up the same thing. I have no idea why they did this, but the overall price was just a few dollars more than Expedia:
Also, in case you're curious, when I just did the single flight search for that final leg, Travelocity doesn't say it needs to be a business class ticket. Instead, it shows a coach ticket with a price not too far off from the Expedia price:
I have no idea why Travelocity sneaks in that business class seat (and it's not clear if that's what Expedia is doing too, though I suspect it may be). Then I decided to move on and test some of the next generation of flight search/booking sites, starting with Hipmunk, which I really like. The end result... about the same, though a tad more expensive.
Now, on this one there are two other things to discuss. First, while it's not clear from the way it's shown here, that first flight is not a coach seat either. The only options presented by Hipmunk were "premium economy" on SAS flights or business class on Brussels Air, even though if you search individually, there are coach seats available. Hmmm. So that's the second search engine that throws in a semi-hidden (you can only see it on mouseover) upgraded seat, which probably contributes to the massive price jump (though on Hipmunk it's the first flight, as opposed to the last one on Travelocity).

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.
With the multi-city search, Hipmunk only shows those two morning flights. I still chose the Iberia flight, since I was trying to keep it somewhat consistent with the other searches. If I had made a few different selections, I could have decreased the total by a bit, but not by that much. Oh, and it's not like Hipmunk can't find that 8pm flight. Do a single search, rather than multi-city and, boom, there it is:
Someone on Twitter suggested trying Kayak, and that turned up something interesting and different!
Hey, look! That first package looks an awful lot like the individual pricing that I found on Expedia. And note the little "Hacker Fare" note. If you mouseover, they explain that to get that rate, you may have to buy flights separately. Hmm. A Kayak blog post notes that such "hacker fares" are usually about finding better two "one-way" flights for a roundtrip. Except that's not what's happening here, since none of these are round trips. They're all the same flights. Except... actually, with Kayak... they're not. These aren't the same flights. One of the criteria I had used above was that I was seeking out non-stop flights, and to get the cheap fares via Kayak, you had to take one or two "1 stop" flights. In the side bar, there are check boxes for things like that, and so I "forced" it to only look for nonstop flights... and Kayak told me no such flights existed.
That seems odd. All the other search engines could find three nonstop flights. For what it's worth, I also checked Orbitz, and Orbitz actually had an even better deal, getting the price all the way down to $1,227.29 -- lower even than my individual flights, but there are caveats. All three of the flights involve layovers, and the final one is an overnight layover, so if timing is important, that might not work.
Oddly, Orbitz basically doesn't show any non-stop options until you get to the second page of results. If you just looked at the first page, you might be led to believe that there aren't even direct flights between these cities at all. Also, as far as I can tell, Orbitz, like Kayak, absolutely refuses to offer any way to take all three flights as non-stop, despite the fact that they clearly exist.

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.

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  1. identicon
    K, 17 Apr 2013 @ 7:28pm

    Re: Re: There's a Better Way to Book than what you suggest!

    You are correct... What i was searching for here is based on his last screenshot... thought the dates across his screenshots are consistent.

    But you are right - there are MUCH cheaper fares there.

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