Years ago, the only thing that mattered to me when flying by air was ticket price. The proliferation of fee-comparison websites felt like a good thing. It allowed me to shop by price with the assurance that competition among carriers had brought the price down – or at least kept it within reasonable bounds in this unknowable industry.
But as I’ve blossomed into a “woman of a certain age,” time, convenience, and comfort matter. And nowhere are those three things more important than on a long-distance international flight en route to, or from, some wild destination where I have been pushed to the limits of my physical and obsessive sensibilities.
Nowadays, I will pay a little extra for a flight that:
- has as few connections as possible;
- connects through airports with a better reputation for on-time flights;
- connects through airports that are less prone to winter storms
- puts me in a decent seat next to a window so I can rest my head while nodding off;
- offers flexibility in case my travel plans change.
This last point is extremely important. Most customers don’t understand that an airline loses some control of your booking – and their own airline seats – when you use third-party booking sites.
For example, during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, my husband faced being stranded in London, England for a long and lonely week. Two days before the storm we made desperate calls to United in order to move up his flight. The airline told us that there were NO flights from London to Rochester, NY, but they could get him from Washington DC to Buffalo (more than 90 minutes away) a day early. Whew. We’ll take it!
But when my husband landed in DC he walked by a United gate with a plane bound for Rochester. There were seats available, but they would not allow him on it because his “bag was already checked to Buffalo.”
How is it that there were seats available to Rochester, but the airline told us there weren’t? And why were we as customers subjected to the wild and costly inconvenience of being sent to a distant airport in a national crisis?
Because the seats that were originally denied him had been sold to a third-party carrier. When no travelers wound up buying the tickets, they were free to be resold. By then, however, it was too late for my husband, and a window into a broken system.
The popularity of comparison booking sites has also nudged up the base price of airfare as airlines try to make up for the costs of working with third-party resellers. Most booking giants, such as Orbitz or Expedia, charge a per-ticket booking fee in return for the privilege of selling their tickets in bulk.
To retaliate, smaller carriers such as FlyFrontier are leading the trend to “penalize anyone who buys a flight through an outside booking channel: they’ll get their seat assigned at check-in, earn only 50 per cent of their frequent-flyer miles and pay higher fees” (source). And we may see more of this to come from larger carriers.
Currently, an average of 50% of air travel is booked direct through carriers. And while comparison booking sites do offer some advantages – package hotel and car deals for example – the prices do not always justify the loss of control and travel flexibility in case plans change.
Travel Tip: Comparison shop online, but then check prices and offerings against the carrier’s own website.