With the summer travel season picking up, airfares are going up, so trying to figure out how to find a cheap flight can be quite confusing. What is a good price? What is bad? What are the latest tricks? Heck, even I get confused sometimes and I deal with this stuff everyday! So I decided to sit down and talk to George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog. This is a site I recommend often, as they constantly scour the Internet for cheap flights and deals. They are one of the best sources for flight information the Internet, and I wanted George to give us his advice on finding a cheap flight.
Nomadic Matt: Why did you start Airfarewatchdog?
George Hobica: I noticed that other sites weren’t listing fares on all airlines, such as Southwest and Allegiant, and they weren’t listing promo code fares or fares available only on the airlines’ web sites. And I felt there was a need for a human touch. A $500 fare to Europe in the dead of winter isn’t the same as a $500 fare in summer; traditional airfare alert sites weren’t triggering alerts if the fare season or rules changed, because they were only tracking the price.
How do you find these deals? It must take a lot of work to hunt them out, especially obscure ones.
We do monitor fare changes using a software program, but each fare is analyzed by a real live human being, who decides, based on years of experience, whether the fare is a “buy” or not. If it’s historically low or otherwise a “decent” price (or more hopefully, a sizzling deal) we post it on site.
Do you ever feel a conflict between your company and its parent, Expedia? After all, they sell fares and you might send people somewhere else.
No. Nor do we find a conflict with TripAdvisor or Hotwire, also sibling sites. They leave us alone to do our thing, which is great. Basically the feeling is we just want to cover the marketplace as much as possible.
For consumers looking for a cheap flight, what tips would you give them for finding one?
We have a list of our top tips for finding fares here: http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/blog/3802366/updated-our-best-tips-for-finding-low-airfares/
But the #1 tip is to sign up for fare alerts, and follow our tweets online. Fare alerts are great, but they’re sent out by email, and email has inherent problems with deliverability and timeliness. Twitter and Facebook are great “instant” sources. Second tip is to search frequently and often and doggedly because fares change all the time.
Is some of it just luck? The best fares always seem to be when an error occurs and someone was there just to catch it at the right time.
It’s not just luck, but hard work and vigilance. Not all the deals are errors; in fact most of them aren’t. They’re just sneak sales during which the airlines are trying to fill just a few seats on the sly. If they wanted to sell more, they’d advertise them.
As someone who deals with airlines prices all the time, is there any method to airline pricing? It seems to have no rhyme or reason.
It’s all very irrational. If the airline business were rational, it wouldn’t have collectively lost so many billions of dollars over the years.
Is there anything consumers can do to game the system?
There are some tricks, some of them not necessarily ethical, and some that can backfire. I’d rather not go there.
OK then, is there any truth to the rumors I’ve heard that airlines and airline booking sites use “tracking cookies” to see consumer behavior? Thus if I go to site X, search but don’t buy, and come back again and do the same search, the prices might be higher?
We have noticed this at least with Travelocity.com. If you do a flexible date search and see a low fare, and then come back later doing the same search, you might not see the lowest fare again, but rather the next lowest fare. It doesn’t happen all the time, but we have seen it happen in the past. But honestly, we don’t see it on other sites too often. If it does happen, it’s because only one or two seats were available for that flight at X fare and when you come back they’ve been sold, leaving the next lowest fare.
If consumers buy a fare and the price goes down, do they have any way of getting the lowered price?
Alaska, JetBlue, and Southwest will give you a voucher for the entire amount of a fare drop difference. Other airlines charge up to $150 on a domestic ticket or $250 for an international one, and some fares on some airlines don’t qualify for fare-drop refunds at all. Yapta.com is a good way to track any refund you might be entitled to, although it doesn’t work with all airlines (most notably Southwest and most non-US carriers).
What are your favorite online tools for finding and monitoring ticket prices?
If I’m totally flexible in my dates, and I usually am, I like Hotwire.com, Travelocity.com. Otherwise, I’ll go with TripAdvisor.com/Flights.
If someone was going on a trip, say, six months from now, would you advise them to buy now or wait?
I’d advise them to start looking right now, follow tweets, sign up for lots of different fare alert emails, and keep looking 2-3 times per day for a couple of months. If there’s going to be a huge price drop, chances are good it will happen over a 2-3-month period, but the best sales only last a few hours and they are not advertised.
What do you see for the long-term future of airline ticket prices? Up or down?
If I knew that, I wouldn’t be sitting here answering these questions. Seriously, no one can predict because there are so many variables: oil prices, further industry consolidation, geopolitical events, natural and manmade disasters, and so on. Over the long term, yes, fares will creep upwards, if only due to inflation. But consumers have a breaking point and they are only willing to pay so much to sit in a tin can on a thinly padded seat, get pawed by TSA, breathe stale air, and deal with cranky babies and passengers of size spilling over into their space. So fares will only go up so much; they’re inelastic.