So you think you found the lowest airfare? Guess again

So you think you bought the cheapest airfare?

Well, airline best fare guarantees, which pledge to provide the lowest fare online or to reimburse you the difference, only occasionally measure up.

I am going to pick on Delta Air Lines, where I am a Diamond Medallion Member, but the point applies to just about every other airline, too.

Delta has its Best Fare Guarantee, which is designed to give you confidence that you can shop on and get the lowest fare.

However the Best Fare Guarantee has several restrictions that Delta can potentially hide behind. And, the technology behind provides you with limited answers and sometimes poor-flight selections. 

Milan to Seattle

Here’s just one example to illustrate the point about not always being the go-to-resource for low fares.

I ran Milan to Seattle fare searches, departing June 12 and returning June 21, on, powered by ITA Software, and, which uses a combination of technologies. I verified that I would get consistent answers by using different browsers and machines.

The two sites came up with very different results.

The fares and flight durations on were lower and shorter, respectively, than on And, Orbitz offered more choice — 206 results vs 17 on ordered the results by lowest price from Euro 1034.50 ($1,322.38) to Euro 1589.85 ($2,032.28). And, flight times for outbound flights ranged from 18 hours and 30 mins to 37 hours and 8 minutes. (Yes, that means you would overnight at least once despite flying westbound.) And, returned only 17 results.

The flight results on were clearly superior. Orbitz’s first page alone showed 25 results, with fares ranging from $1030 to $1074, and with flight times ranging from 13 hours and 55 minutes to 16 hours and 55 minutes.

Thus, the Orbitz results showed lower fares and flight times of shorter duration. has made it very unlikely that you would have found the lowest Milan to Seattle fare and Delta doesn’t provide the most practical itineraries.

At other times, is too focused on a particular control showing ONLY the lowest price, where no lower published fares are possible, up to the first 25 results. This is fine for domestic fares, but lousy for international fares.

With its focus on lowest fares, Delta neglects logical fares and itineraries. For example, if there is merely a $1 difference between a nonstop and a one-stop, Delta chooses the one-stop with the lower fare.

Orbitz uses a different set of algorithms based on ITA’s engine. It approaches the problem differently. As a result, in many cases Orbitz finds better results, particularly for international searches, as the Milan to Seattle example shows.

Delta is biting the bullet and is considering moving to ITA (or at least it apparently was until this “glitch” drew widespread media attention). Reports say Delta frequent flyers were retrieving sometimes-higher fares than other travelers based on the airline trying out a new provider and using Delta’s current provider, as well.

Although there is speculation that the new provider was ITA, a Delta spokesman declined to name the third party technology being tested.

These issues and the Milan to Seattle example point to the conundrum that you think you found the lowest fare, then consider that flight results can be very inconsistent.

The issues with or other airline websites also raise the question: Do airlines try to provide their lowest fares all the time?

The jury is out on that subject, but  I don’t think airlines try hard enough to provide the cheapest fares to all of their users.

But I also don’t I think the airlines deliberately push higher fares at their better customers, as this recent article — which is unsubstantiated, in my opinion, suggests.

And, do travel agents always push the lowest possible fares to their customers? The obvious answer is no.

A travel agent will recommend fares that are not the absolute lowest because business travelers often change their itineraries, and thus the reduction of risk and the possibilities of changes become more important than the absolute lowest fares.  

In turn, this contributes to the fact that agencies generally charge higher fares than online sites.  Thus, average fares on online sites are much lower than via an offline travel agent — not because agents are bad or lazy — but because they are providing a service and not basing everything on only one metric — price.

So now do you think you usually find the cheapest fares?

Hardly! That’s because airlines deliberately make it difficult for you to find the best airfare.

I hope your brain hurts from reading this — and I deliberately simplified it.

Sadly, inconsistent results from intermediaries and airlines drive so much unproductive searching.

Perhaps the key question is: Does anyone want to change this?


Note: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

About the Writer :: Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

Timothy O’Neil-Dunne is the managing partner for venture firm VaultPAD Ventures– an accelerator devoted exclusively to Aviation Travel and Tourism.

VaultPAD also is the parent company for consulting firm, T2Impact. Timothy has been with tnooz since the beginning, writing in particular aviation, technology, startups and innovation.

One of the first companies to emerge from the accelerator is Air Black Box. a cloud-based software company providing airline connectivity solutions and in production with airlines in Asia Pacific.

Timothy was a founding management team member of the Expedia team, where he headed the international and ground transportation portfolios. He also spent time with Worldspan as the international head of technology, where he managed technology services from infrastructure to product.

He is also a permanent advisor to the World Economic Forum and writes as Professor Sabena. He sits on a number of advisory and executive boards



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  1. Max

    I find SkyScanner pretty neat. Have used it many times to book flights and get the best prices. But then again, I was a Kayak fan until a few months ago – guess these web services come, make a huge splash and then are replaced by a younger, smarter portal 🙂

  2. Dominique

    I’m confused because that’s not an apples to apples search. Of course Orbitz or any other OTA will come up with more results and lower fares then the airline websites. ITA is combining multiple airlines to give you more flight options and likely a lower fare, then Delta with limited inventory and flight options. Your screen shot shows, AA out Delta in, which only validates my point. How can Delta show you options with AA? Not sure I get the point of the article.

  3. Heddi Cundle

    Hmmm – so you spent ages rummaging around trying to find the best price yet the screenshot shows same prices, and i’m sure if you checked elsewhere, they’d also show the same rates because (apart from suppliers), the rates are all being pushed through the GDS. So why spend so much time trying to find the best price when we all know published OTA rates are the same across the board. This is why we created – the only site that actually solves this ridiculous ‘price hunt’ problem. I just cannot understand why anyone would waste so much time trying to compare between, what, $5 difference on sites instead of using logic and utilizing I rest my case!!

  4. Micki@theBarefootNomad

    What you really want to do is check airfares directly through ITA Software itself. Will let you search a calendar of up to one month of fares, check for flights on airports within up to a 300 mile radius.
    You can’t buy through ITA Software, but it’s an awesome way to find the cheapest fare.

  5. Henry Harteveldt

    Now boys….behave…

  6. joerivanderkleij

    […] op op 24 mei 2012. Geschreven door Timothy […]

  7. Steve Hafner

    Hmm, using KAYAK (which searches and Orbitz, among many others), I found 1265 flights with a lowest price of $1005. Might want to try that next time, Timothy!

    • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne


      Thanks… the issue of how people search acknowledges a number of different options. For the purposes of brevity, I wanted to show a stark contrast (otherwise the audience might be falling asleep). As I said in the opening statement, I am picking on Delta in the article perhaps unfairly but it illustrates the point. where do i go for the best fare that is trustworthy. If you can guarantee the fare on Kayak – then great everyone should go there.

      BTW I did the same search on Mobissimo and found a lower headline fare of only $987 on Delta.


      Yup just like the consumer.



  8. Micha

    Nice PR work for Orbitz and Delta. There is absolutely nothing new in this article
    But a lot of praise to Orbitz, and a bit for Delta.
    Yes, prices can be incosistant, the cheapest fare is not always from the Airline directly.
    And Delta, and Orbitz…


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