Topic of the Week: How Do You Want to Buy Plane Tickets?


This has been a heavy week talking about how airlines sell tickets, so for the topic of the week, let’s turn it lighter. What do you want to see when it comes to buying a plane ticket? What do you hate and what do you like about the current process? What would be your ideal way to buy tickets?

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28 comments on “Topic of the Week: How Do You Want to Buy Plane Tickets?

  1. Recognizing they are part of an alliance. For example Singapore Airlines keeps deleting my account every year or two despite me flying on them with the account. It is just that I have the miles credited to my UAL account so the balance never changes which they confuse with inactivity. The account matters since you have to enter a boatload of information when booking (eg passport and green card info) and it lets you save those.

    Try looking for SFO CMB at United’s site. They’ll come up with bizarre flights but they won’t include using SQ (also Star Alliance) at half the price. Or they send you to Europe to do a second stop on Emirates when Emirates flies direct from SFO.

    Perhaps the most annoying thing is just how slow airline sites are. I can understand ones like Kayak/Hipmunk etc because they have to deal the GDS or do similar layers of indirection. But when the airline is presenting its own information without intermediaries there is no reason for it to be showing spinning cursors and stupid animations and instead should be showing results instantly.

    Heck what they should do is show results before you enter anything – they can work out where you are geographically and show popular trips and specials without any extra information. Then they can let me enter information to narrow things down like where I am going, when and how long for.

  2. I likes the way the old displayed flights: outbound options in the left column and return on the right. That allowed for quick checking of flight combinations with instant pricing. Now the United website is like all others that display round trip pairs only which fills screens upon screens of combinations.

    If the left-right display came back (and used by others), it would be easy to add ancillary options and promotions, a win-win for the airlines and consumers. For example, some add-one are per segment and this could allow you to pick variations on options as well see how a more expensive nonstop base fare could end up costing less than a connecting flight depending on what options you want. It also makes it easier to mix airports (a plus in DC, NYC, CHI, etc).

    1. +1 here. As a former west-coast flyer I liked you could toggle between the option of price (vacation, fun) and schedule (business). It was a great feature. Thumbs down on UA for removing it.

    2. It’s not so much that United got rid of the left-right display, but rather that they got rid of their old website completely. The current is really the old

  3. As someone who works with Airline websites & GDS systems every day, in some ways the Websites are great to use. but you can not beat a GDS to be able to work out just some crazy combinations of possible routings as it is limitless what you can find.

    But some GDS (i use amadeus at work) are just WAY WAY WAY out of date and they definately need upgrades.

  4. I normally start my serach for fares on Kayak and end up buying my tickets either direct from the airline through their website or through my bank’s visa travel site which is frontended by Expedia and back ended by a local brick-and-mortar travel agency (I get 6pts per $ bonus for booking this way).

    What I would like to see in the future is an interface te be able to search for fares inclusive of my desired anciliary services (read: baggage) so I dont have to use a claculator and flow chart to compare options across airlines. I should be able to select all the options I wish to pay for at the time of purchasing my ticket rather than being nickled and dimed later down the line.

  5. I’ll plug for the “direct connect” model, specifically on a metasearch site like Kayak. What I would really like to see is an option to first pick your city pair and dates, and then a checkbox menu to pick extra services (checked baggage, preferred seats, priority boarding, etc.), along with a box to indicate which carriers you have status on. Then, I would see a display that shows the “all-in” price on all carriers serving that route. For example, I have elite status on AA, but right now, all I see is the base fare. Even if it’s $35 more than the other cheapest option, what I really end up paying is probably going to be the same or less because I have priority boarding and preferred seating included for free on AA, which in all honesty I would probably pay for if I didn’t. It would be nice to just head over to Kayak and have this displayed for me up front on all carriers.

    FWIW, I like the new fare display that AA rolled out a few months ago. Each outbound segment displays a roundtrip price, but then when you select the return, it shows how each segment will affect the roundtrip price. I find it especially helpful if I’m thinking about doing a “mixed cabin” routing, i.e. coach one way and business/first on the other. It’s nice to see exactly how much extra upgrading on one leg will run.

  6. The best way to buy a ticket is through a professional agent who knows EVERYTHING about fares, routes and rules and who would assure my best price and best experience as his exclusive customer. I recently had a great experience with the Cranky Concierge and though I paid a fee, it was personable, hassel free and I was confident that I got the best service, best value, and best connections for my needs.

  7. Most of my flying is for work, and such I have to use Concur (Carlson Wagonlit) for all of my flight reservations. The way the system presents flights is atrocious and often won’t find the same, or even similar, combinations or pricing that say United or Kayak do. It’s painful and I hate it.

    1. +1. One of my long time clients requires me to book through concur. Wretched interface; even more wretched travel support.

      When booking my own business or personal travel: Kayak, which usually takes you to airline’s web site. Often I’ll try to force a routing to get the balance of fare, schedule, routing, equipment type, & most hassle free connecting airport. It does take time, but often it’s fast than concur or even Amex’s corporate travel site I sometimes have to use.

  8. Usually use the Airline I will be flying home Web Site
    Best Prices and usually never a problem in changing flights etc.
    When just me I use my Elite phone number for 1 K with
    United… They take their time and get you your best route..
    ( That is when United Computers are up and working)

  9. I have problems when I try to get to those out of the way places. For an upcoming trip I need to get to YYT but will be coming there from YUL. It was amazing the effort it took to figure out the options on the very few available airlines (w/out crossing back into the US).

    What I want is to never get the “No Flights Available” response. It seems none of the databases have EVERYTHING from EVERY airline. WN is a perfect example. I want a one stop place to see it all there. No problem going to the airline specific website to actually buy the ticket, or in my case I usually go to the agent, but I want to know what my options are ahead of time as I’m planning meetings, etc. Extra steps of shuffling through multiple websites takes time.

    1. The problem is that Southwest doesn’t want to be comparable. They don’t even want to be on a metasearch site that will feed the bookings to them. They’ve built quite a reputation for being the “low fare” airline, so they want their customers to continue to come straight to them without shopping around, on the assumption that they have the best fare.

      Since it’s less often the case that Southwest is always cheaper (whether they’re being matched by a legacy carrier or being undercut by the likes of Allegiant and Spirit), they don’t want it to be too easy for their regular customers to figure that out.

      I’ll give an example. Recently I’ve been looking at fares in the SAN-LAS market. Two airlines compete nonstop: Southwest and Spirit. The flight is less than an hour long, so the idea of connecting anywhere is basically absurd, as you’re looking at tripling the travel time. Spirit (before we start building in optional fees) is about $50 less than Southwest. But the only way to figure that out is to compare the two sites side by side. Spirit is actually in GDSs and metasearch sites like Hipmunk, so if Southwest was also in Hipmunk, passengers who might normally just go straight to Southwest to book might instead try Hipmunk, and discover that Southwest isn’t the cheapest. And once you shatter the illusion…

  10. Cranky, wonky, OK, but still great. Thanks.

    I’ve ranted about this often enough, I’m know. But, dear airlines, please try to think of your customers, actual and potential. Try to keep it all, display of services, prices, the process for purchasing of a ticket as SIMPLE as possible.

    We travelers travel for many reasons. Hardly any two of us, whether for business or pleasure, make choices exactly alike. How much weight each of gives to when we buy tickets, airline brand, aircraft type, seat location, day of travel, time of travel, airports, route, baggage handling, meal service, cabin services, you name it, varies considerably.

    And, the business model you use to price is your business. We’ll guess it has a lot to do with supply and demand, but maybe it doesn’t. It’s your business.

    But, please try to make it easy for me to understand the services I’m getting for a price. And, try to keep prices something I can understand and something that looks like supply and demand is in effect. And, try best as you can to price for a given service such that it doesn’t look like a “wild” fluctuation, one minute $100, $599 the next.

    Don’t use “buckets” when talking about fares. I don’t care about buckets. And, please, nothing like “only 3 tickets left at this price.” It makes me gag. You might as well add: “flight leaves in 27 hours, 19 minutes, 18 minutes, 17 minutes, …!”

    Ultimately, down the road, I’d like to see something like the way we buy and sell stocks through an online broker: a sales display by each airline for a seat (1) last seat sales price, (2) airline’s offer for next sale, (3) my chance to make a bid for a finite seat and (4) bingo, sale. Maybe that’s what Cory Garner at American had in mind, I don’t know.

    And then, with a ticket and a name, they’ll be a place to go to make changes. Nothing to do with the fare, just here’s what it takes to make that change. Old price, new price (however thay might be establinsed), processing fee. Same name, new ticket, done!

  11. For something simple people usually know what airline they want to fly so just going to the airlines website is fine.

    But for big travel needs using a travel agent with a GDS will be better then any airline or 3rd party website.

    Unless their is one big central website nothing will beat the GDS a travel agent/travel department uses.

  12. I used to think the Orbitz matrix display was pretty neat. Then I heard about Hipmunk, and their timeline display was one of those moments of, “This is awesome! Why did nobody think of this before?”

    TripAdvisor’s flight search (a Kayak-like metasearch tool) seems to do the best job of factoring in add on costs. You can tell it what airlines you have elite status with and how many bags you want to check and it can factor in additional fees. But it’s based on their own efforts to compile data, rather than getting the info fed directly from the airline, so it’s not perfect (it doesn’t know, for example, that as a Delta Silver Medallion, I get 1 checked bag free on Alaska).

    So the idea of the future that Cranky has described this week, where a third party site can work with the airline to build an offer based on my travel profile and amenities I’m looking for on a particular trip, sounds pretty good. Especially if it’s Hipmunk.

  13. I’m delighted with booking upgradeable tix on the new UA’s website. Never could do that with CO, always had to call … and pay for the privilege of talking to a res agent! Now, just put in your info, list of flights appears, clearly showing which have upgradeable seats and number of miles required … and you can check the plane configuration on the same screen. Choose your itinerary and off you go. Booking online is so much more comfortable because I can look at what’s available at my own pace and check my calendar or with my husband/colleague and book when I’m satisfied that I have the best itinerary and price. If the upgrades aren’t available, I can come back later and try again or experiment with different connections or dates. No phone tree, no holding on with crass commercials about how good the airline is, easy and really a pleasure.

  14. I don’t want to buy plane tickets. I want to buy travel tickets. A couple of years ago I had to go to West Palm Beach, where the airport has no nonstop flights to the L.A. area. Instead of a connecting flight, I flew nonstop to Fort Lauderdale, then continued to West Palm Beach by commuter train. This was faster, cheaper, and more convenient than any air connection. So I want to search for travel options to my actual destination, not an airport destination.

    A few years prior I was helping someone who needed to get from London (UK) to Lafayette, LA. Their travel agent (in England) wasn’t able to find any good flight options to New Orleans. They were going to rent a car anyway, so I pointed out that Houston was only an extra hour of driving — problem solved. Again, get me to my destination, not to an airport.

  15. Interesting that no one has mentioned mobile – I really like the idea of being able to book and manage travel on a mobile device, but most airlines’ mobile apps and websites leave a whole lot to be desired.

    For example, Delta’s mobile app looks the business, but when my travel plans got pulled apart because the plane for my first leg went AWOL .. the mobile app only had a small subset of the available rebook / reroute options (and the options it had weren’t even the best options going)! Fortunately their website had saner options for me to choose from, but it would have been nice to have everything available to me from my phone.

  16. I want to be able to book one way flights on legacy airlines without paying a premium Fare.

    I also want to know how to search the ITA matrix to do a search like this: “Show me all flights leaving SFO on 03-16-13, sorted by price and costing less than $900”

  17. Perhaps someone can answer a pricing question I have? I live in Korea and fly Korean Air for vacations/trips back to the US throughout the year. On their website, if you select Korea as your residence, a flight from ICN-SGN round trip (for example) would be 300 USD or so LESS than selecting the same flight on their US website. The fares both include fares and taxes, so it’s not like one shows them while the other doesn’t.

    Why is that? Any real ideas?

    The same applies for Kayak and Expedia. You get the “US price.” I have also noticed this with Asiana, too.

    1. Michael – All airlines have the ability to price this way if they want. It’s called “point of sale” pricing, meaning that fares vary depending upon where the ticket was sold. You see this a lot as a way for airlines to segment prices based on what people are expected to be willing to pay. Of course, with the ability to book online and change your point of sale, it makes it a lot easier to circumvent these rules. We had a concierge client who bought a first class ticket from Dubai to Singapore on Singapore. It was over $1,000 cheaper to buy on the UAE version of Singapore’s website than we could get through our US point of sale.

  18. You don’t even have to use VPN…it’s as simple as changing the “Country Page” on the airline’s website. That’s what I always do. I find the airlines that fly to where I want to go, get an idea of ballpark fares and schedules on kayak and always go directly to the airline’s website.

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