Which airfare site is best if your schedule is flexible?

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In our last two installments we looked at seven different major airfare sites to see which of the airfare sites is the cheapest, and which airfare site is best if you know exactly what you want. Now we’ll take yet another look at each site to see how they perform if you have a flexible schedule and you just want to find the cheapest ticket possible.

What we’ll test this time
Let’s say you want to visit a city for a week. Money is tight; schedule is flexible. You want to find the cheapest flight you can. Other details will sort themselves out easily once your ticket is purchased. Some airfare sites have helpful search tools built in to make this process simple, but others are not so kind.

The test trips
The sites have different features for domestic US flights and international flights, so we’ll test them each with two city pairs.

• Denver to Orlando
• San Diego to Paris

For both we’ll search for a round-trip, nonstop or one stop, leaving any day during an entire upcoming calendar month, returning seven days later.

Expedia
Domestic – Their system is slightly confusing, but Expedia does allow you to search for ranges of dates within calendar months, so without too much hassle, we looked at the lowest fare they could find for our trip. (8 out of 10)

International – The main search box warns that flexible dates are for “popular US routes only". After entering some tests dates, there were no tools offered on the results page, so any flexible international searches must be done manually. (2 out of 10)

Travelocity
Domestic – A flexible dates option is right there on the main window. It allowed a full-month search simply enough, but the quoted fares all excluded taxes and fees, which weren’t revealed until much later in the process. The results were good, but forcing a user to march down a long road before revealing the actual price is annoying. (6 out of 10)

International – Again, the flexible dates search on the main page were well done, but our hopes were dashed on the results page when it revealed that flexible dates were only available for US and Canada. This too was slightly annoying because it wastes your time with the first search, and then forces you to select all dates manually anyway. (1 out of 10)

Orbitz

Domestic – A small “flexible dates” link is nearly hidden on the main search box, but once that is clicked, the following page reveals three different and equally impressive options for searching ranges of dates, including one ideally suited for this test. This was easy to use once people find it. (9 out of 10)

International – We only found out on the internal Flexible Dates page that this option is for US and Canada routes only, but our disappointment was short lived since we (accidentally) discovered that it worked for our city pair anyway. We hope this means Orbitz is testing flexible international searching because their tools are among the best. (4 out of 10, and if international searching is a supported feature in the future the score will be much higher)

Hotwire
Domestic – The flexible date search was easy to find and easy to use. It allowed users to search any 30-day range they want, instead of only calendar months. The results portion was somewhat confusing and it made you choose departures and returns separately, but with only a couple extra clicks, the ideal flights were identified. (9 out of 10)

International – Unlike the others, Hotwire’s flexible date searching works internationally as well. It’s not only a handy system, but in this case the site also offered up a “Hotwire Limited Rate,” which met our trip criteria without naming the actual airline, and saved over $70.00 from the best price using named airlines. (10 out of 10)

Priceline
Domestic – No flexible date searching is offered on the main search page, which is disappointing, but at least it doesn’t waste time with false promises. (2 out of 10)

International – Same as Priceline domestic. (2 out of 10)

Kayak and SideStep (These sites have merged and continue to behave identically, although we hear that might not always be the case in the future).

Domestic – Kayak and SideStep allow you to enter a date and then search three days before or after on each end, which in effect allows you to search a full week at a time. It’s simple to use, but it would obviously take four plus separate searches to cover a full month. There is good news, however, as they both offer a hard-to-find “fare alert” feature, which is available only after a user creates an account by providing an e-mail address. Once registered, you can enter search criteria and get instant results for any date range, and also choose to have it send you an e-mail if and when it finds an even better price, or a price under a certain level you specify.

We only know about this feature because it was easy to find on SideStep in the past. The Fare Alert feature is presented cleanly, but as of now, it’s fairly difficult to figure out how to use the first time. Users with the patience to master it are rewarded with a powerful tool, and we have to think this will get better and simpler in the future. (7 out of 10)

International – These sites have the identical system for international and domestic, including the promising-but-hidden tools. (7 out of 10)

Our ratings

Conclusions
In this case it’s probably best to judge each site separately, depending on whether your trip is domestic or international. Expedia, Orbitz, and Hotwire were all easy to use for domestic flights, and Travelocity was only a bit clumsier. Priceline appears to offer no flexible searching options at all, and Kayak and SideStep are great, but only after a rather steep learning curve.

For our international search, Hotwire was the clear winner. Not only is their international search function easy to use, but they also offer significant savings using flights on an unnamed airline. This mysterious program is not well suited to most trips, but when your schedule is flexible and your main objective is the lowest price, it can very worthwhile.

Next week
We’ll look at some of the additional features that weren’t discussed so far, and we’ll see which airfare site comes out on top.

Stay tuned for: Which is the best all-around airfare site?

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