Several Web sites are offering travelers the ability to search over time for the best air fares rather than at a single point in time.
With fares changing many times a day, services such as Travelocity's FareWatchers, Orbitz's Deal Detector, and the new TripStalker try to give travelers the tools to find the best deal when it comes along.
FareWatchers has been around the longest. It launched in 1997, one year after the online travel agency started. Today, the service has more than 5 million subscribers and sends more than 300,000 e-mails a day notifying members of air fare changes that interest them.
FareWatchers offers two types of e-mail alerts: one when Travelocity's lowest fare between two targeted cities changes up or down by more than $25 and the other when the fare falls below a threshold set by the subscriber.
"People know that airline prices tend to fluctuate from one day to the next," said Joel Frey, a Travelocity spokesman. "The service helps keep them informed and helps them get a good deal. It drives a lot of sales for us."
Orbitz's Deal Detector is similar. Users set a target price for a trip on a certain date between two cities and Orbitz e-mails them when a match is found. Searches can be modified to include nearby airports and to add extra days to the search parameters.
TripStalker, a stand-alone company out of Austin, Texas, is the latest company to enter the ongoing search business. It hunts not only for air fares, but also hotel rooms and rental cars. It's not an open-ended search, but instead targeted at people planning a trip on a specific date or dates.
"TripStalker is really a niche application, trying to serve a specific need of people whose time is constrained," said J.P. Maxwell, president of the company, which has about 1,000 subscribers.
The other key difference between TripStalker and the others is that users of TripStalker download the company's software to their own computers and plug in where they want to go, when they want to go, and how much they want to pay. TripStalker constantly searches for fares that meet the search parameters and notifies the subscriber when the target fare is matched or beaten. Subscribers receive notification on their desktop, by e-mail, or by text messaging to a cell phone.
Many consumers are wary of downloading software to their computers, but Maxwell said the approach has several advantages. He said users can update their search or check the latest results with a click on their toolbar rather than logging on to a separate Web site.
Eventually, users also will be able to put their computer's power to work for them, Maxwell said. Currently, TripStalker software reaches out to the company's computer servers and searches for deals using many of the same reservation systems used by the online travel agencies. In the coming months, Maxwell said, the software will be upgraded to enable the subscriber's computer to reach out directly to the Web sites of airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue that don't participate in the reservation systems.
Southwest Airlines in the past has refused to give third-party Web sites access to its fares because it wants customers to book directly with the airline. Maxwell says TripStalker is not technically a third party because the subscriber is using TripStalker software to reach out with his own computer to do the search.
"We're doing it with the subscriber's permission and only for the stalks that he is interested in," Maxwell said, adding that the legal logistics still have to be worked out.
TripStalker earns money when users find a fare they want and click through to buy it. If the software is upgraded to offer direct searches of airline Web sites, Maxwell said, his company would have to solicit advertising or charge extra for that service. TripStalker users now pay nothing for the software.