No Clear Winner in Online Battle For Cheapest International Airfares

No Clear Winner in Online Battle For Cheapest International Airfares

Despite intense competition, none of the major independent or airline Web sites has emerged as the best destination for the cheapest international airfares. In its first-ever report on booking overseas flights, Consumer WebWatch found the category's leader hampered by technology problems.

Orbitz, the Web site owned by five of the largest U.S. airlines, has spent millions marketing its services on television and the Web. In tests conducted by Consumer WebWatch in December 2003, the site was so adept at providing low fares it posted some of the most impressive statistics WebWatch has ever recorded. However, testers found the Orbitz fare display tools to be inaccurate and cumbersome. The site chronically presented listings for unavailable flights and returned fares that changed during the shopping process, most often increasing in cost.

"We've told consumers many times to shop the major sites for the best travel deals, and that advice still stands," said Beau Brendler, Consumer WebWatch's director. "For buying tickets for international flights, it comes down to whether you have time to bargain-hunt and the patience to make sure you're buying exactly what you asked for at the price you wanted."

Key Findings:

Lowest Fares

  • Despite technology problems (see below), Orbitz comfortably led all 16 sites by providing the highest percentage of lowest fares (30 percent), ahead of Northwest/KLM (27 percent), Expedia (23 percent), and Travelocity (19 percent).   
  • When the results were adjusted to include not just lowest fares but also "closest" fares (within $10 of the lowest fare), Orbitz dominated all competitors by providing the lowest or closest fare in four out of five cases. Orbitz led with 79 percent, followed by Expedia with 55 percent and Travelocity with 35 percent.   
  • Individually, all three integrated travel Web sites -- Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity -- consistently provided a higher number and percentage of lowest fares than the branded airline sites did collectively. Note: This was accomplished despite all three integrated sites charging booking fees in most cases.   
  • Three major U.S. airline sites -- Northwest/KLM, United, and American -- performed well at providing the lowest fares. Some foreign airline sites also performed well, albeit with much smaller test samples.

Technology and "Fare Jumping" Problems

  • The Orbitz flight selection "Matrix(tm)" failed repeatedly. In 150 trials, the lowest posted fares increased in price 21 percent of the time and decreased in price 5 percent of the time. In addition, the lowest-priced flights were not available 19 percent of the time and could not be booked online an additional 5 percent of the time. In many cases, these problems occurred multiple times within a single query and required extensive cross-checking of posted listings.   
  • The "fare-jumping" problem, when a site displays a low fare that, in fact, cannot be booked, reached a nadir with Orbitz, when the posted price of a round-trip flight between San Francisco and Brussels suddenly increased by $1,098.   
  • Travelocity and Expedia also displayed inaccurate pricing and booking information, though neither site's displays returned inaccurate results as often as the Orbitz Matrix(tm). With Expedia, lowest fares increased 5 percent of the time and decreased 2 percent of the time and lowest-priced flights were not available for booking 2 percent of the time. With Travelocity, lowest fares increased 1 percent of the time and decreased 1 percent of the time and lowest- priced flights were not available for booking 1 percent of the time. There were no such problems with any of the branded airline sites. To their credit, all three integrated travel Web sites now post printed warnings to users when fares suddenly increase or decrease in mid-booking.   
  • Consumer WebWatch found that in booking international airline tickets, base ticket costs are generally higher, taxes are more complex and currency conversions often affect total pricing. "There's no doubt that some of the best travel bargains can only be found on the Web," said William J. McGee, consultant to Consumer WebWatch and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "But there's also no doubt that in many cases the technological tools have made it harder rather than easier to find those bargains."


Over the course of several months, Consumer WebWatch planned, tested, and analyzed results of the three leading travel Web sites that offer integrated listings of competing carriers: Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. These three sites were included in all 150 trials for routes from the U.S. to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia. In addition, "branded" Web sites maintained by airlines were also tested, though no single site was included in all 150 trials. They included sites maintained by five U.S. carriers (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest/KLM, and United) and eight foreign carriers (Air France, Air Jamaica, British Airways, Korean Air, Lufthansa, Singapore, Thai Airways, and Virgin Atlantic). In addition, an airline site was not included in any trial if that airline did not serve the route in question. In total, this project consisted of 150 separate trials, for a total of 911 queries across all 16 Web sites. Of these queries, 903 were deemed valid, after eight were discarded due to errors on the part of Consumer WebWatch.

Report Availability

Previous studies of the online travel market: Consumer WebWatch, independently and in conjunction with Consumer Reports Travel Letter, which ceased publication in December 2002, has conducted the most comprehensive series of tests and analyses of the online travel market -- including airlines, hotels and car rentals -- ever published. Previous reports are available at: Consumer WebWatch's archive.

About Consumer WebWatch

Consumer WebWatch is the leader in investigative reporting on trust and credibility in the online marketplace. Consumer WebWatch uses the proven methods of Consumer Reports to produce comprehensive research, breakthrough conferences and serves as a daily resource of unbiased and trustworthy information. Its research agenda includes entire online marketplaces, such as travel, search, health, financial services and more. Consumer WebWatch is a project of Consumers Union and is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Open Society Institute.