Aggregators search all the booking engines, airline sites, travel agencies, and airfare discounters in the blink of an eye
Let me be blunt. If I could check only one kind of website before booking an airfare, it would be an aggregator.
I could quite happily then proceed to book my plane tickets knowing that there is only the smallest chance a better fare is out there. (Well, OK, I would want a chance to check the consolidators as well first.)
When looking into buying plane tickets on the Internet, you probably do what most people do: check one or more of the famous search engines and booking sites—Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity (though you should know: Expedia actually owns all three now)—then pick the best price you can find and book the tickets.
Congratulations. Chances are pretty strong that you just overpaid for your airfare.
While the three famous Expedia-owned booking engines often do offer decent fares—occasionally even the best available—there are many other booking engines (both smaller ones and foreign ones that aren't as well marketed to the U.S. audience)—not to mention many consolidators (wholesalers), airfare discounters, and online travel agencies, all of which might very well have even lower fares.
So how do you search not only Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity but also all of those other sites as well?
You use a kind of automated personal shopper called an aggregator.
Enter the aggregators
Price aggregators—also known as "meta–search engines," since they search the search engines for you—are a different breed of web critter. These Web sites are looking to preempt all the big booking engines by batch-searching most of the airfare sales sites for you, directly and all at once (well, it might take 10 or 20 seconds).
Most aggregators will run your itinerary through dozens upon dozens of cheap fare sites, individual airline Web sites (not just the major airlines, but smaller carriers and low-cost airlines ones as well), discounters, consolidators, and traditional travel agencies and come up with their answers.
This saves you the hassle of opening up a dozen browser windows and keep clicking back and forth through them all, sifting for the best prices.
In other words, aggregators will tell you know only the going rates at the Big Three, but also survey the majority of all the other prices available out there.
Meet the Airfare Aggregators
The pros and cons of the best airfare aggregators are all detailed in the "Airfare Links" section below:
- Momondo.com - (Aggregator) Before I get into details, just know this: 95% of the time, I find the lowest fares on Momondo. Momondo quietly blows most of the other aggregators out of the water. It searches more than 600 airline sites, plus booking engines, search engines, travel agencies, online discounters, etc. This is two to three times as many sources as the competition—including the low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines most of the other search engines ignore—and it pays off. You can also quickly see which flight is cheapest and which quickest (and which best overall), as well as use all the usual filters on the results (length of flight, departure/arrival times, number of stops, airlines, etc.). I ran Momondo through many tests, and it almost always found the lowest available fares on domestic, Transatlantic, and inter-European flights. It found fares from carriers none of the others did, and when it did find the same flights as some of the competition, it almost invariably managed to find a lower price for it. For now, at least, I'm calling it: Momondo is the single best resource out there, bar none.Partner
- Flyinternational.com - (Consolidator) The airfares branch of AutoEurope.com consistently offers among the cheapest (and most reliable) European airfare consolidators out there. Barring some sale fare elsewhere, this is where I almost always end up buying my transatlantic tickets for the simple reason that they are almost always the cheapest. This is also why I chose to partner with them for this site.Partner
- Skyscanner.com - (Aggregator) Another excellent aggregator that, like Momondo, also includes the little low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines ignored by most other search engines. I like that you can be as vague on your departure/arrivial points as simply an entire country, rather than a specific city of airport—you never know when, say, a flght into Manchester will actually be cheaper than one to London.Partner
- Hotwire.com - (OTA) Offers regaular fare searches and Hot Rates opaque fares (cost less, but with slightly less control over departure times and other details)Partner
- VirginAtlantic.com - Given all options, I will actually pay a bit more for Virgin Atlantic flight than one on any other airline. They just treat you so much better.Partner
- Google.com/flights - (Aggregator) Google has acquired ITA, the original airfare booking engine long used by travel agents. It's now available to the general public, and niftily shows you the rough current lowest cost for flights to pretty much anywhere from your hometown via a Google map measled with red dots marking major cities around the world. It doesn't allow you to book, but will tell you where/how to book the results it finds. Not really a strong performer on internaitonal flights yet—though, oddly, does a good job with last-minute international fares, so worth checking.
- Expedia.com - (OTA) Expedia—which does a fine job on middle-of-the-road fares—is the last remaining of the Big Three online travel agencies. (Expedia bought both Travelocity and Orbitz in 2015; Travelocity's search results are now identical to those at Expsia, and we can only hope Orbitz's lackluster results follow suit.)Partner
- Hipmunk.com - (Aggregator) The aggregator that rethought how searches should be delivered—and I always like those who think outside the search box. All results are shown on a timeline, and the default sort-order for flights that match your search is "Agony"—a combination factoring in price, flight duration, and stopovers—so that the least annoying options pop up first. You can also sort more traditionally by price, duration, departure time, arrival time, non-stop only, and ask it to favor your preferred airlines (or airline alliance). One drawback: It really only serarches the airlines directly plus a few booking engines like Expedia, so you're not getting the full story (no discounters are in the mix). Still: handy.
- CheapOair.com - (OTA) Upstart consolidator and discounter using the power of the Web to weave together the best bargains and negotiated discounts with three reservations systems and fifteen travel service providers—something of a mash-up of a traditional booking service and a wholesaler. It claims 18 million exclusive flight deals, a low airfare guarantee, and 84,000 negotiated hotel rates.Partner
- Vayama.com - (Aggregator) One of the original international airfare aggregators, and still one of the better ones.Partner
These aggregators are canvassing dozens of smaller OTAs and booking services, and you may not be familiar or comfortable with the agency that claims to have the lowest fare.
(To its credit, Skyscanner shows you not only the prices for each of the OTAs, but also its users' star ratings for each.)
With any unfamiliar company, make sure you vet them.
Do a quick search on "[name of company] complaints," and run the name through BBB.org.
Keep in mind that a few complaints don't mean the outfit is no good—even stellar companies garner grousing). But do look for complaint patterns that might make you wary.
In the end, you might up choosing, say, the third least-expensive OTA to make your booking because it had a better rating.
All of the airfare hunting techniques mentioned on this site have merit, but, honestly, if I had to narrow it down to two crucial places to check, they would be:
1) The aggregator Momondo
2) The consolidator AutoEurope
Nine times out of ten, I end up booking my plane tickets to Europe through one of those methods.
The bots are always getting smarter about finding great fares—but they're not yet perfect.
For example, when I went to get a screen-grab for the graphic at the top of this page, I put the same dates on a NYC-London itinerary into several aggregators.
I was really after the visual—an image that would best illustrate the fact that multiple sites and airlines were being searched—but in the process noticed a serious discrepancy in the fares each were able to find. I stuck all the screenshots in the photo gallery so you can compare, but to sum up: on this particular search, the cheapest overall fare was $440 on a WOW flight with a stopover in Iceland, which both Google and Skyscanner found.
The cheapest nonstop flight the aggregators collectively found was on Norwegian, but here the results got screwy. Skyscanner found that flight for $446, Momondo that same flight for $531 (though it also found a cheaper alternative: $501 on British Airways). Google found $555 for the Norwegian flight, and Hipmunk could only do $569 (though Hipmunk also had a cheaper nonstop on tap: $541 on Air India.)
However, all that was just on that particular search. On another date or route, perhaps Momondo might have come out on top.
In other words, it pays to check them all—and that doesn't take long.
Another potential drawback to meta-searching—and to the big search engine bookers, for that matter—is that sometimes an individual airline might have a special sale going on, or its Web site features an option that lets you be fuzzier about departure and arrival times and dates.
Either of those situations may generate much lower fares than the sort of straight search most meta-search engines (or booking sites) performs.
Aggregators can be a good way to sort through and compare all the sites with ease, but you may miss that incredibly cheap needle when you're looking at the whole haystack at once.
It can pay to give a quick check on the websites of whatever major airline uses your nearest city as a hub, plus the major airline(s) of the country in question (in this case, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic) just in case.