I like to think that I have a pretty solid grasp of how revenue and inventory management work together within the airlines to control the price of a flight. I understand fare rules, inventory allocations and routing rules and I can generally figure out what’s going on. Heck, I’ve even built tools that help find the information and distill it to simple numbers. So I was incredibly surprised this weekend when I went to purchase a few "local" flights for our New Years trip to South Asia. Needless to say, the numbers were not playing nice.
I got an award flight into India using my OnePass miles from Continental and a revenue ticket on the return from Colombo, Sri Lanka on a combination of Emirates and British Airways. That part was relatively easy, though I did run into some issues booking one of the return options (now since discarded) via EgyptAir from Bangkok. But that was nothing compared to the crazy I experienced trying to buy the domestic flights in India and the short hop from Chennai to Colombo.
Here’s a screen shot from the ITA pricing engine for one of the flights we wanted:
Pretty simple, really. Based on that we should have been able to get the flight for about $200 without much trouble, right? So I started checking around a few different booking engines. Thanks to the various referral link/rebate options for flight bookings I was checking three different engines, Expedia, Vayama and CheapoAir (n.b. – those links earn me that rebate if you use them). The rebates offered vary so there is some flexibility in figuring out which is best deal but, all else being equal, I should be able to get the published fare from each, right??
Not at all.
For that flight which nominally cost $200 the options I got were $257 or $247 from Vayama and CheapoAir, respectively:
Exact same flight, date, time and fare bucket, but a price that was 25% higher. Zoinks! Fortunately Expedia was able to book the flight at the "correct" price for that one.
For the flight from Chennai to Cochin a few days earlier, however, CheapoAir was about $50 less than Expedia and actually ended up being less than the published price in ITA thanks to a coupon that they had published, a coupon that didn’t work on the above itinerary.
Similarly, for the flight to Colombo the ITA price seemed decent enough, with flights at the right time for what we wanted:
Once again, Vayama was terribly over-priced, even including the click-through rebate earnt:
And Expedia was still showing the published ITA rate:
But don’t forget to check the operating carrier, too. A quick visit to the SriLankan website pulled up this price:
That converts to USD $213 at the current exchange rates, a full $80 less than the fare published in ITA and a whopping $140 less than what Vayama wanted for the exact same rate.
So, is there a moral to the story? Maybe it is this: Airfare pricing is horribly inconsistent and near impossible for mere mortals to effectively and easily compare. It also further enforces my fears of how much worse it could get if the airlines continue to pull information out of the GDSes and move towards their direct sales model. In this case the direct model ended up saving me a few bucks, but only after quite a bit of digging to find the best price.
It really shouldn’t be this hard.
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