The many different prices of a flight


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:

COK-MAA ITA

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:

COK-MAA VCOK-MAA Ch

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:

MAA-CMB ITA

Once again, Vayama was terribly over-priced, even including the click-through rebate earnt:

MAA-CMB V

And Expedia was still showing the published ITA rate:

MAA-CMB Ex

But don’t forget to check the operating carrier, too. A quick visit to the SriLankan website pulled up this price:

MAA-CMB UL

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

11 Comments

  1. I assume you’re taking advantage of the wonderful AA fare CMB-North America. I did this in F on EK to London and BA to Seattle a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful experience. The shower on the EK A380 was ridiculous. Are you doing it in first or business? EK for only the first leg or to London? Connecting in SIN and/or MLE as well? Next time around I think I’ll do CMB-SIN-DXB-LHR-SEA. It’s only another ~$200 for an extra 7 hours of EK F suites.

  2. Do you need a visa to fly to Sri Lanka? How much time do you allow in CMB for transfer to your outbound EK flight?Thanks!

    1. A US national can obtain a Visa on arrival for up to a 30 day visit in Sri Lanka so no advance papers required for that part of the trip. We are spending 8 days in India on the same trip prior to heading to Sri Lanka and that does require a visa.

      And we’re staying 5 nights in Sri Lanka and actually visiting the country rather than just a quick transit. Now that the civil strife has calmed down there I’m quite excited to see the country; it is supposed to be absolutely amazing.

      And, yes, it is a great CMB-JFK fare via DXB and LHR with the last segment on BA and the first two on EK. I didn’t think about the SIN routing this time; maybe next time though.

  3. Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations, such varied attractions with a small island. A car is a big help.

    The booking woes reminded me of my own frustrations. mapsofindia.com’s flight schedules were useful and thomascook.in was great for booking most of India’s airlines, beyond what the international sites like Kayak offer. I dedicated today’s post to this: http://blog.wandr.me/rapidtravelchai/2011/11/20/booking-indian-air-tickets-best-to-outsource-to-india/

  4. It’s not a problem that unique to India or something, it’s prevalent everywhere with GDS’s increasing the costs for the airlines, the airlines have resorted to putting up the best fares on their own sites for garnering more revenue and cut down on commissions to the agents.

    Expedia is good for Indian airline bookings and so are certain India specific sites like cleartrip.com, makemytrip.com and yatra.com

    1. I agree that it is not unique to India, but in this case the most interesting bit to me is that the different engines which are based on the GDS data are showing wildly different prices for what is arguably the same published inventory. The cheaper fare on the carrier’s site is the exact same fare basis as the ones which are more expensive on the other sites.

  5. I just posted this on Rapid Travel Chai, but for me, the best place to book tickets for travel within India is on makemytrip.co.in

    Make sure to select the Indian version of the site and you should be able to book any domestic Indian ticket very easily!

    1. Local point of sale is often more important than local currency, though actually getting the transaction completed with a local PoS without also actually being in the country is harder. Fortunately OTAs have made it a bit easier, but still not perfect.

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