New Web sites spot airfare trends

October 03, 2006|By Suzanne Marta | Suzanne Marta,The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- At least every other day, Nancy Sido clicks through a list of travel Web sites, monitoring airfares for future vacations and setting up alerts to learn about sales.

"I don't want to buy a ticket too soon, and then find out I could have waited a month or so and saved a few hundred dollars," said the retired sales executive from Irving, Texas.

Now, a handful of new travel sites are trying to ease that frustration, harvesting and crunching fare information filed by the airlines to offer customers historical trends.

Using historical data, customers can make decisions on the optimal times to travel, much as technical investors on Wall Street rely on charts to predict when to trade stocks.

"Most people don't even know what a good price is," said Rick Seaney, chief executive for one of the new sites, FareCompare LP in Dallas.

Seaney's site, which was launched in March, uses software to chart month-to-month fare fluctuations and track them against current prices.

"Most customers shop three to five Web sites before they make a purchase," he said. "There's a lot of anxiety about pushing the purchase button."

Some airlines' Web sites are more transparent than others. One appeal of low-cost carriers, such as Southwest Airlines Co., has been that customers see all possible fares for a route on a single chart.

But some carriers instead display a list of available itineraries at specific fares, without showing at a single glance all the different fares for the flight.

The Internet has helped level the playing field for travelers, allowing them to quickly scan prices for a specific itinerary and book trips on their own.

Seaney says his site can help users recognize quirks in the way airlines schedule flights.

For example, competition from low-cost carriers such as Southwest often puts pressure on other carriers to lower fares. But Southwest is selling tickets only through early March; some other carriers sell tickets almost a year in advance.

A traveler looking to book a trip further ahead could see the lowest prices currently available, but not realize that those fares historically drop once other carriers post their new schedules.

"A lot of people think it's a good idea to buy way ahead of time, but that's only true if you know what the historical price is," Seaney said.

Farecast Inc. of Seattle also offers travelers historical prices, but takes it a step further by offering a prediction on whether fares for a particular itinerary are likely to go up or down within a week.

Farecast chief executive Hugh Crean says his site gives consumers more confidence by telling them where to buy and when.

"Prices move meaningfully and frequently," Crean said. "Knowing when to buy will save you money."

Farecast scours most airline sites, plus Orbitz.com, to offer users a grid of airfares and itineraries. A separate chart tracks pricing for a specific trip for up to 90 days before departure.

Farecast's software was created in 2003 by University of Washington computer science professor Oren Etzioni who was frustrated when he realized he had paid more for his airline ticket than the passenger sitting next to him and wanted to find a way to anticipate if fares were going up or down. The software project was originally named "Hamlet," riffing on Shakespeare with a slogan of "to buy or not to buy."

The system identified more than 100 different attributes, including how many seats are left and time of year.

Some experts are wary that historical fare information is valuable to travelers.

Terry Trippler, an airfare expert for MyVacationPassport.com, said travelers are more interested in how to get the cheapest fare, rather than what prices have been in the past.

Henry H. Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research, said the new Internet sites signal the next wave of tools for travelers looking to buy online.

"They provide perspective and that's something consumers have rarely had," Harteveldt said.

FareCompare and Farecast aren't the only sites trying to give customers more context.

Last month, Kayak.com launched its "Best Fare Trend" and "Best Fare History" features, which show travelers prices that others have found for a particular destination.

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