My airfare booking salad

What’s the best way to book airfares? Haven’t sophisticated Internet airfare search tools made travel agents obsolete?  Word on the street touts travel portals like ITA Matrix as the doom of travel agents. For me, at least, it’s just not that black and white.  Agents and portals are all part of my personal solution, and I don’t see that changing a lot.

First, as to the demise of the travel agent sector:  I’ve heard that for decades every time some new computer-based travel booking tool makes its way to the masses, so I’ve learned to be skeptical. Yes, travel agencies have been under fire from both the travel industry and the traveling public since Delta stopped paying commissions in March, 2001, forcing agents to start charging customers fees for issuing tickets.  But agents seem to be hanging on just fine, many even thriving.  Especially those that specialize in business travel.  A friend’s brother recently sold his North Carolina agency, which handles travel for a large bank, for a price I would call a fortune.

I digress.  I can only speak from personal perspective and purely subjective needs in lonely online quests for the best fares and optimal routings.  My persistent airfare searches on multiple sites often make me feel like a squirrel scrounging for nuts, endlessly digging under different trees.  For example, good as Orbitz seemed to be when it first arrived in leveling the fare field to make the choices airline-agnostic, Kayak and others did even better.  At least for a while.

Over time the airline-specific sites upped their game a bit with twists like unique upgrade opportunities.  Delta has become quite clever at targeting my RDU origin market with customized deals aimed at me, a trend Joe Brancatelli wrote about on November 21, 2019 in his “New Rules” piece explaining that public sales are dead.

I still use Kayak and similar sites for reference quests, but often I revert to aa.com or delta.com to book directly if the airline sites match the fares of the broader search of a relatively simple city-pair itinerary.  Booking direct ensures I get the perks, however meager, associated with my elite statuses, as well as automatically entering my full name (correctly spelled), passport details, and TSA Trusted Traveler data.  Most other sites either don’t do that, or I don’t trust them to keep that information secure.

Sites like ITA Matrix excite my squirrelly instincts, providing in just a few minutes of thoughtful queries, insights into booking possibilities that I could imagine, but would take me a lot of burrowing to uncover.

And yet, if these newest open-to-everyone booking tools are so damn good, why is it that my longtime business travel agent is consistently able to find better air travel deals and routings than I can?  The answer, I believe, is that he has tools I do not have, combined with super-sharp experience honed by doing what he does every minute of the day.  Add to that the advantage of the team-sharing experience that his employees bring to the table based on their every-day-all-day hunts for the best deals for their customers, and even the most agile software powering travel portals accessible to me is no match.

(In my experience, that’s true for airfares: My agent almost always equals or beats what I can find. That’s not always so for hotel or car rental bookings, but that’s another story.)

Another thing I am not able to see as a mere mortal are premium cabin deals offered (rarely) to travel agents directly from airlines to improve slack bookings on certain routes and dates. Deeply discounted business fares are uncommon these days, and more’s the pity.  I have been known to flex my travel plans (dates, airlines, routings) to take advantage of such bargains.  Anything to get out of coach!  I usually can’t find these on public portals, so my partner is my travel agent. I always ask if any quiet deal is lurking behind the curtain.

Of course I always book direct if I am looking for an award seat because frequent flyer programs are strictly an airline game.  If I am planning to pay for my ticket, however, then I test every possible online portal to find a good fare and always do that homework on options before contacting my travel agent.  My agent is especially good at finding the least expensive fares and the most comfortable way to go for complex international itineraries, and the booking fees are a pittance compared to the dollar and qualitative value I get in return.

Point is, no one way to book airfares works for me.  Which is fine.  I don’t need to take sides.  Mixing it up gives me confidence that whatever I pay on whatever airline via whatever routing is likely my best option.

Postscript:  Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday period, which included Black Friday, I received a number of what were heralded as great deals from airlines, including Cathay Pacific and Qatar.  However, testing dates and destinations was tedious and didn’t yield many bargains that matched the come-ons except with very long layovers or dates that didn’t work.

In other words, about what I expected. My experience is that real airfare bargains take lots of time and luck to ferret out and are not always connected to a trumpeted sale.

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