Are airlines pulling a bait-and-switch?

Mironov/Shutterstock

Alina Novak’s complaint had a familiar ring to it. While she was searching for an inexpensive round-trip ticket from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on TripAdvisor.com, she stumbled upon a $177 airfare.

But when she clicked on the “buy” button, TripAdvisor redirected her to an online travel agency called FlightHub.com, which required her to enter her credit card information. Then, just before processing her transaction, it delivered some bad news: The low price she’d been shown wasn’t available, but she could have a ticket on the same flight for $393.

“To quote a much higher price after a purchase is fraudulent,” she adds. “Why such a discrepancy?”

Why, indeed?

Customers such as Novak — and there are a fair amount of frustrated passengers like her out there — say that this is a bait-and-switch; that TripAdvisor, or FlightHub, is intentionally displaying a low rate and then switching it out after a purchase decision is made. Travel companies dismiss that claim, calling it an electronic hiccup from an airfare distribution system that sometimes can’t handle real-time transactions.

A TripAdvisor representative declined to comment on the specifics of Novak’s complaint, citing privacy reasons. “But we have investigated the situation, and there was no error on the TripAdvisor site,” said spokesman Kevin Carter. FlightHub did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Novak’s complaint.

The issue of fare advertising has taken on a renewed sense of urgency now that Congress is considering removing the Transportation Department’s full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines and ticket sellers to display a price that you can actually book. Incidents like Novak’s and that of one loyalty-program blogger have called into question the travel industry’s narrative about fare displays and raised an even larger question: Are travel reservations systems — and, specifically, airlines — even capable of telling the truth about their prices?

Congress is about to let airlines off the hook on this issue. The Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 would give airlines a federal license to advertise a low “base” fare and add taxes and fees later in the booking process, before you buy a ticket. Countering that, the Senate is mulling a separate bill that would not only leave the full-fare advertising rule in place but would also double the maximum penalty from $27,500 to $55,000 a day for airlines and large ticket sellers who fail to show an “all-in” fare.

I receive regular missives from readers about disappearing prices, most commonly airfares. Technology experts blame the problem on caching, or storing the fares to make them faster to access online. They say that caching sometimes allows a fare to show as available when it’s already purchased. But once you try to book it, the system will return an error and point you to the next available fare, which is usually more expensive. Stopping these false positives, experts add, would require an expensive top-to-bottom overhaul of existing reservations infrastructure, which is built on aging legacy systems.

Historically, these glitches have been played down as rare and isolated, but a recent investigation by a blogger raises some doubts about that claim. In a blog post published on the site DeltaPoints.com, René deLambert describes his recent effort to book a ticket between Dallas and San Francisco. He details each step with a screen shot of Delta.com, which shows how he selected a low fare and then proceeded to checkout. Each time, the system informed him that the “price has just gone up.”

“If I go back, as Delta.com tells me to do, and search again, it will do the exact same thing to me once again,” he notes.

To him and to many of his readers, it appeared that Delta was intentionally baiting passengers with a low price and then claiming that it wasn’t available, but that they could pay for a more expensive ticket.

Delta would not discuss the specifics of deLambert’s complaint on the record. The airline released a written statement saying that it always strives “to provide our customers with the most accurate information possible on delta.com,” adding: “When the occasional ticket price changes during a customer’s purchase experience, we fully disclose the change to them prior to the completion of the transaction so as to provide the most updated information and allow an informed travel purchase decision.”

All of which brings us back to the question of inaccurate fare displays and what lawmakers could do about them. If these “phantom” fares don’t violate the Transportation Department’s controversial “full fare” advertising rule, then what does?

True, the current rule prohibits carriers and ticket agents from engaging in bait-and-switch tactics. But the DOT defines that to mean that a carrier or ticket agent can’t repeatedly advertise a fare at the beginning of the ticketing process only to present the consumer with a higher price at the end, according to the agency.

“We have heard isolated anecdotal reports involving fares that were cached or stored on a server for a period of time during which the selling entity’s Web site displayed that fare as current and available, when, in fact, it had been replaced with an updated — usually higher — fare,” says DOT spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey.

To incur the wrath of the DOT, which regulates domestic air travel, an airline would have to “systematically and intentionally” use caching as a method of luring consumers to its Web site or increasing the price people pay. Put differently, someone would have to catch an airline or ticket reseller doing it over and over again, and show irrefutable proof. Given the fickle nature of today’s online booking systems, that may be impossible.

Novak’s case had a happy ending. After my inquiries, a FlightHub representative contacted her and promised to send her a check for the difference between the rate she’d originally been quoted and the one she paid for her ticket.

The rest of us probably won’t be so lucky if we ever see a disappearing price. Caching is a known glitch in today’s airfare distribution system. The federal government tolerates it up to a certain point.

Passengers want to know the truth about their fares, but airlines may be incapable of telling it.

Should the government allow airlines to display fares that are unavailable because of caching?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • backprop

    I can’t get worked up over this one. It can be frustrating when it happens on rare occasion, but there just isn’t a pattern established that airlines do it all time time as part of a conspiracy to bait-and-switch. And the first anecdote given was about TripAdvisor and “FlightHub dot com,” so that shouldn’t sway anyone.

  • $16635417

    I was starting to formulate a similar response. Has anyone ever had this problem with an airline’s website? Generally they have live inventory.

    I basically gave up on this one after wanting to blame the airlines for TripAdvisor and FlightHub dot com.

    I answered the unrelated poll question as a no though.

  • TonyA_says

    Caching is not a glitch. It is the heart of the system that allows you to shop around online today. With soaring look to book ratios, how else can you handle the demands of a big window shopping environment?

  • Bill___A

    I’ve never had a problem with this on an airline website. Furthermore, websites such as Expedia tell me when a fare is in short supply, stating “4 left at this fare” etc. When I do see a change in fare, it is usually only a dollar or two. I’ve also had situations where the fare has gone down, but usually only a dollar or two.

    Airline seats are priced differently and as long as the airlines continue to tier their seat prices according to various criteria, we are going to have this problem.

    I agree that the full fares including fees required to make the purchase (i.e. not including optional fees) should be displayed but this article here is about keeping up with declining seat inventory. It is particularly going to be an issue when going to sites that check “all” the websites for fares.

    I don’t really see this as a big problem.

  • TonyA_says

    “To quote a much higher price after a purchase is fraudulent.”
    Where was the purchase? When did it happen? Most of the quote changes occur before the purchase.

  • $16635417

    I actually finishing reading the rest of the article and Chris does mention someone having a problem with Delta dot com. (Perhaps had he led with that, it would have held my interest.)

    Not sure what that issue would be, but I suspect it is not by design and an unintended consequence of something else. It make no sense to offer a fare on your own website that is not available since you are absent of competition.

  • Bill___A

    I didn’t notice anything about Delta.com so I guess that’s a different aspect – the last time I flew Delta was in 1996 and I expect that won’t change.

  • $16635417

    I’ve seen this happen many times, but NEVER after I hit the purchase button. The first paragraph states she was given the new fare prior to processing, but she accepted anyway? Chris seems to make it sound as if she was not aware and charged a higher amount. It sounds like she had the option to stop the transaction before hitting submit.

  • Raven_Altosk

    UA does this all the time.
    Thanks so much SMI/J.

  • James Gerber

    It’s interesting that those of you that defend the practice never noticed that the practice almost always results in a substantially higher price. If it were just due to caching, the discrepancies should even out but they don’t. Also, the complainant had to enter credit card information to find out the price quoted was not correct. My experience is that this is even worse with car rentals and hotel prices (at least at Orbitz). Orbitz advertised a price at a San Diego hotel of $68 and the all-in price after going to their web site was over $170. They claimed this was due to caching but they advertised the $68 price for 3-4 weeks in a row! I see they now have a disclaimer that the advertised price is not what is available but what has been available sometime in the recent past.

  • TonyA_says

    Even out? No way. Since low priced fare buckets sell out first, then the eventual price is biased upwards.

  • TonyA_says

    I’m conflicted here. What is to stop a scum operation to take advantange of the cache blame game as an excuse to commit fraud?

    When I googled the OTA’s CEO, it pointed me to an nymag article entitled “The Geek-Kings of Smut”. Maybe there is more to this story.

  • James Gerber

    It is sometimes biased upwards but sometimes not. When bookings don’t meet the predicted rate, fares will go down, not up. I once booked a last minute fare PHL to LAX for $100 less (due to a cancelled United flight) for example.

  • TonyA_says

    While ticket prices can and do fluctuate, the general bias is upwards the closer to the travel date. That is a reasonable expectation, and I hope you are not suggesting for buyers to hold out since they could be badly burned.

  • HM in VA

    I encountered this on Frontier’s website recently, but it was even more annoying because it kicks you back to the beginning and showed me that the fair was a whopping 5 cents more expensive. Not a very user-friendly website.

  • MarkKelling

    Hmmm, never had it happen to me on UA as described here.

    What I do see a lot of on the web site is the “Great Sale! Business class to Europe from only $xxxx each way!* *These fares are valid as of Sat., May 24, 2014 1:32 PM Central and are subject to change without notice and limited availability.” Of course the day and time I want to go it is not available at that price so it will cost me 3 times what is advertised. But I get the actual price right away, I’m not taken through the entire booking process only to then be told it was more.

  • MarkKelling

    “the advertised price is not what is available but what has been available sometime in the recent past”

    Which does the purchaser absolutely no good at all. I don’t care what the price was yesterday or last week or last year. I only need to know what it is going to cost me right now. Another reason I don’t use Orbitz or the other similar booking sites.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Presumably after getting a flood of complaints the airlines would terminate their involvement with shyster OTA

  • MarkKelling

    “Stopping these false positives … would require an expensive top-to-bottom overhaul of existing reservations infrastructure … built on aging legacy systems”

    The issue is not the legacy systems which are perfectly capable of supplying real-time data, but rather the connections to these legacy systems. The online travel agencies mentioned in the article are built on the lowest cost options possible. One cost cutting option is to not go for real-time data. While I have no idea what the costs are for these companies to have the real-time connections, they can be fairly high given the huge number of connections required to keep all of them current. But this is still no excuse to continue displaying out-of-date pricing after customers have been provided the real current pricing multiple times. Unless it is the airline, car rental, and hotel companies that continue to provided stale data when the online travel sites do their periodic updates separately from the actual purchase transactions.

    The other issue (which I discussed in another posting here) is that many travel sites show the special deals where prices are noted as “from” a given price not “for” that price. This apparently gives the advertiser the option to then come back and say that all the items for that price have been sold and offer a much higher price.

  • TonyA_says

    Are travel reservations systems — and, specifically, airlines — even capable of telling the truth about their prices?
    Reservation systems (aka GDS), YES. Shopping systems (cached database), NO not always.
    Chris you mentioned in your article the other day: the difference between a shop-able and a bookable rate.
    The main difference is a reservation system (a GDS) uses real time seat availability, whereas a cached shopping system does not. Most of the time when you go shopping online, the only time seat availability is confirmed is after you hit the select button and enter your credit card.

  • TonyA_says

    I need to emphasize that airline reservation systems were designed and built to make reservations (bookings) and issues tickets. They were not made to be shopping matrix systems. They do a fine job for making reservations and issuing tickets, but they cannot do the something they were not designed to do. The current shopping system would be extremely wasteful if all window shoppers would be given the same weight (priority to query the airline’s seat availability database) as people actually booking a ticket.

  • cahdot

    this happens even when on a regulare airline site… try going to aspen in june usually $400(22 minute flight ) now in june $1100 to 1443) outrageous United

  • TonyA_says

    I remembered seeing the Delta online site with a powered by Orbitz “label” years ago. That said, if they are relying on the same technology Orbitz/Cheaptickets uses today, then it is no wonder they show phantom fares and inventory. IMO, Orbitz has too high a probability of displaying an error telling you the fare you selected is no longer available.

    **ADDED** on the other hand, I have experienced some situations when Delta online would still have seats on lower priced inventory I cannot find in my GDS. So this is hit or miss at best.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree. The invention of internet shopping forced all the airlines to develop new interfaces into their existing booking systems. Some airlines are apparently better at it than others because you can get what appears to be real-time pricing and seat availability when shopping on most airline web sites. At least in my experience I have not had issues with pricing or seat availability not being what was initially shown. I have had timeouts and other technical issues where I lost my session and the pricing / availability changed before I could get back to the specific site. I don’t count those as the bait-and-switch issue the article is pointing out.

  • TonyA_says

    IMO, out of practicality, the DOT should be able to provide some safe-harbor programs (against misrepresentation and false advertising) for providers and users of airline meta search data. There are not too many providers – ITA, Amadeus, etc. and they should be able to follow some guidelines (if they exist). Similarly, their customers, the OTA’s and airlines can follow suit. I do not know if there are any specific government guidelines for these search companies. I suspect Chris is clamoring for one.

  • MarkKelling

    Then drive! It’s about 3 hours and the scenery this time of year is great!

    I just looked and found a fare on UA for $715 total for the Food & Wine festival time frame. This is leaving 19June at 08:00 from Denver and returning from Aspen on 23 June at 17:42 in economy. While still high, if you really have to fly that is what it costs. Or you can go at another time when it costs less. Either way, UA is not showing one price and then charging something different at purchase time.

  • cahdot

    cannot go till later in afternoon hence the higher fare..for the 22 minute trip… i know it’s 3 long hours not a fun drive esp when u must get a rental car evenif u do not need it once u get there but one way car rental is more than the flight another sad state

  • Carrie

    Except for their travel forums, Trip Advisor has been useless to me.

  • $16635417

    That’s just pure supply and demand. Seats are a limited commodity. The fact that a passenger is willing to pay over $1K for that flight at that time is why it costs so much.

  • cahdot

    it still sucks and should be illegal they can put a few more planes on the route those days and make the same or more$$$$

  • $16635417

    We all know airlines have SO many extra planes and pilots to fly them sitting around. That’s why they recover so well after a storm.

    If they kept the fare low they would probably have been sold out by now anyway, so it’s really moot.

    Again, if people are willing to pay $1000 to fly at that time…then that’s what it’s worth at that time.

  • cahdot

    if they cancel a flight for whatever they do not make it up even if u paid $1000 they tell you come back on thursday –when it is only sunday???????

  • $16635417

    Whatever.

    The Hotel Jerome is over $1000 per night during these dates is June, in October it’s about $500. Things cost more when demand goes up. It’s simple economics.

    This still is not related to today’s column.

  • cahdot

    and little nell is $1400 president weekend and june enough already
    so what it is related travel DAAAA

  • $16635417

    Hotels aren’t travel related? Really?

  • MarkKelling

    OK. Makes sense that the time that is affordable is inconvenient. Airlines always do that.

    There is a shuttle bus from Denver Airport to Vail. It is about $178 round trip and appears to have openings. Maybe that would work? (Google: Denver Vail Shuttle)

    EDIT: Meant Denver ASPEN Shuttle

  • bodega3

    Just drive up there. I showed your post yesterday how the pricing works. You waited too long to book for a lower fare.

  • bodega3

    Good call!

  • bodega3

    With the time it takes to drive to DEN, park, be there 90 mins to 120 mins prior, the flight time, the shuttle to where you will be staying, it is best to drive. I have been to Aspen during this event and parking isn’t an issue.

  • bodega3

    Could you imagine if the airlines went live with online availability. It would be nuts! I remember in training, reservations were notified we were going to book from live inventory.

  • John Keahey

    I’ve not experienced it through dozens of flights. But I refuse use aggregators. Go figure. I watch for special offers, and when I go to get one it has always been as advertised. Delta is the major carrier out of my airport.

  • bodega3

    Until you ticket, no airline price is guaranteed. I have had ticket prices change during the course of issuing. What is happening is that DIY’er think things should be one way but don’t want to bother to learn the how’s and why’s of the actual booking process.

  • bodega3

    No carrier has live inventory online. I have had the carriers actually tell me this. There are only two places for live airline inventory, the GDS and calling the carrier directly to have them book in their system.

  • bodega3

    Every system has allotted inventory. We have 3 systems in the agency and often find one fare in one that isn’t in the others.

  • FQTVLR

    I do not think hotel reviews on trip advisor are reliable, so I certainly would not rely on the site for airfare information. And I have yet to run into this problem booking directly on an airline site.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    yeh there’s a huge conspiracy out there(NOT !!!)
    The airlines only put a very small % of seats out there on a loss leader basis.
    Alina is just too slow in a number of respects.
    Someone else beat her to the cheapest fare, it’s as simple as that.
    Airlines don’t DO anything as backdrop implies.
    It’s all computerised.
    There are so many seats, different people are looking at them & 1st to pay wins !!!
    What’s so hard to understand about that ?

  • MissFitz88

    I am completely off topic here; but I want to comment on the direction this site has taken. I only read news online; and book vacations. I have always regarded this site as a news/travel site; in other words serious. But lately the amateurish, comical pictures that accompany each article remind me of something well……….comical and amateurish. I find myself clicking on the story of the day as fast as I can, and scrolling down to avoid the over the top picture that accompanies each story. I feel it has cheapened the content and purpose of this site.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    So noted. Which photos do you find objectionable and/or “comical” or “amateurish”?

  • LFH0

    I do want to be able to see all the fares that are published between two points, even if not all the published fares are available for a particular itinerary. Of course, the system should be able to indicate which fares are available, and which are not. In the early days of consumer booking, one could readily use Easy Saabre to ascertain what the published fares were between two points–and the booking classes required for each–and then search for availability in those booking classes, constructing an individualized–and not necessarily the shortest allowable–connection (and without invoking a stopover) in order to the fare desired. One can still do much of that on ITA Software, but the airline websites generally don’t readily provide fare bases, booking class availability, or building multi-leg itineraries. So, yes, I would like to see all published fares, both available and unavailable, along with sufficient information so that I can construct my own connections on flights with availability in the required booking class.

  • TonyA_says

    In fairness to the big OTAs, I have to say most of their domestic flights are pretty accurate. I did my own amateurish test. Using my GDS, I looked for flights with only one seat left on the lowest priced booking code. Then I went to the OTA to display the same thing. Next I sold the last seat to my GDS itinerary. Then, I went back to the OTA and searched again. The good OTAs reflected the change in seat inventory and priced the next higher class. I ignored my current itinerary and it released that last seat back to its original bucket. I made one last search on the OTA and it found the cheaper seat again.
    This simple test proved to me that not all flights are cached or are cached the same way.
    Some of the lesser known, cheap OTAs failed my test. They still displayed the lower ticket prices even when last seat availability was already taken. I don’t know what these buggers would do after you enter your credit card. Maybe you’ll get a call the next day to tell you something went wrong.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    100% untrue. Virgin guarantees the price for 15 minutes. :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I can only speak from my obviously limited experience, but I’ve never had a price increase during the booking process.

  • TonyA_says

    I think it is the government’s job to make sure shoping is safe for the DIY folks. More consumer protection is needed. Since there is very little industry vetting of OTAs, and the internet is the wild, wild west, then some consumers will likely get hurt.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Why should it be illegal? Why should they lose money. Would you sell your services at less than market rate? I certainly wouldn’t.

  • TonyA_says

    I have seen United error out, meaning you will be forced to resubmit the search and will likely get the next available higher priced fare bucket.

    I have seen many error messages in Orbitz and Cheaptickets especially for international.

  • TonyA_says

    :-) use a GDS.

  • MarkKelling

    Thanks for taking the time to do this.

    So I guess some OTAs do have some real-time capabilities and access to live inventory after all. :-)

  • TonyA_says

    I noticed the price jump (difference) reported by the LW. It was from $177 to $393. That’s more than double the fare. So I went to GDS to display the YUL-FLL fares.
    $177 (one way) is a very cheap fare for the legacy airlines. Unless this was AIr Transat with very limited flights, then this had to be on one of the big boys. That said, the legacy airlines have about a $20 increase per fare bucket step. This means that for their fare to go up from $177 to $393 there had to have been at least six (6) booking class jumps!
    I have never seen seat sell outs 6 classes higher. Chances are you will see 1 or 2 class class close out but not 6.
    That said, this case is very weird. And the best explanation I can think of is the fare displayed was completely wrong to begin with (not a cache problem, per se.)

  • TonyA_says

    I think you and bodega are referring to different things.
    I believe bodega is referring to choices displayed prior to selection.
    Many of these are from cached data.
    What I think you are talking about is AFTER selection since there is no excuse for an airline (or OTA for that matter) not to make a real-time availability query.
    Virgin America might even go beyond just making a query, It may have temporarily held the space for the the 15 minute session or until you booked it.
    BTW you might be surprised to know that some online fly-by-night agencies do not create a booking or ticket online. They simply collect the credit card information and do the booking with their back office later. This should behoove consumers to pick only the best OTAs. The real good ones display your confirmation (PNR) number immediately which you can then check with the GDS company they used.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    May 20th to the current date certainly fall into the “eww” category for me. Obviously posed. Cartoonish. The one that irritated me that the most was the one on May 22nd, with the young man “dressing up” to look older. As a matter of fact, all of them look like high school actors dressing up for the school play. So, you’ve got 2 “eww” votes on the new set of pictures. :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    In that case, I stand corrected.

    Unfortunately, it does not surprise me to learn that some agencies do not create bookings online. Between learning that Priceline faxes (or used to fax) its bookings to hotels, and seeing a customer turned away in Heathrow because the OTA did not have live inventory and could not complete the booking and (according to the customers) never told them, I gave up on OTA’s a long time ago.

    For my lack of risk tolerance when making reservations, I just book directly with the travel provider. The only time I ever use an OTA is for the rare occasion when I want to comparison window shop.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The last time I flew United was 2002ish

  • bodega3

    Virgin America or Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Australia? Regardless, you still are not protected until ticketed….period!

  • bodega3

    No, they have better programs in obtaining them. No OTA has live inventory according to airline reps I have spoken with.

  • bodega3

    They can pull their plates.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Virgin America. I do not know the industry definition of protected, but once you make a selection, Virgin America guarantees both the availability and price for 15 minutes.

  • bodega3

    Do you think it is unsafe? Fares change. What you look at then try and book may have been the last seat and when you get to the end of the information needed for the reservation, you won’t have the fare anymore. Many times I have had fares change during the booking process. DL had some low fares from SFO to DFW that I was issuing many tickets for and half way through, the fare was pulled. I called DL and got a waiver code, but it was a pain to finish up. Worldspan use to guarantee fares until the end of the day (work day? mindnight? never got that one answered!).

  • bodega3

    Interesting. In the GDS, you can lose that last seat during a booking process if someone else books and ends the PNR before you. Had it happen a few times. I learned to grab and end, but now with all the security information needed prior to ticketing, I can’t do that.

  • bodega3

    If that happens, you can cancel as you have the 24 hour rule.

  • backprop

    The lady heaving into a toilet was pretty bad.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I understand. I’m trying to go with photos that convey an emotion. I could revert back to posting pictures of airplanes, but those were not bringing in readers. I could also post doctored pictures of stick figures next to airplanes, but I believe that’s been tried. It’s a crime against Photoshop.

  • MissFitz88

    Sorry Chris, but every single one in the past week or so. They are overstaged, and it makes the ‘acting’ look amateurish. I just find them extremely annoying. Way over the top.

  • MissFitz88

    Editorial style cartoons?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Cartoons? I thought the complaint was that the photos were over the top. I don’t understand how a cartoon would be any less over the top. I’m open to changing the pictures, but I need a viable alternative.

  • MissFitz88

    Sorry, but I like editorial style cartoons. They are witty and satirical. Do what you like. It is your site. I have my opinions.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I like them, too. A good editorial cartoonist will charge between $500 and $700 per illustration. I’d love to be able to afford that. I think it would make the site better, too.

  • Michael__K

    Properly implemented, caching is not a glitch.

    If you repeatedly get the “price is no longer available” message when you try to book — and yet you repeatedly see the old bargain price each time you perform a brand new search — then THAT is either a glitch or a very questionable implementation decision.

  • TonyA_says

    Imagine you own or run a for-profit business and allow people to query your inventory system. How many queries will you allow for free to onlookers, those who will not buy? Will you hold that inventory for even a few minutes and reserve it for purely window shoppers?

    I think the answer is obvious. Chris is dreaming if he expects the airlines to hold confirmed space (even for a few minutes) for online window shoppers (aka lookers).

    Let me explain this another way. Take United for example. For most flights UA will only show a max of 4 confirmable space for a flight’s fare bucket. Can you imagine if a family of 4 passengers peek at a fare and UA had to temporarily hold that space for them like for 15 minutes. What would happen when dozens of other people also search seats at the same time? Since you can potentially have several browsers doing multiple searches then the number of phony demand for seats can easily be much higher than the real seat capacity. That would simply sell out all the seats and make fares higher even if sales was ZERO. Even if all seats cost the same, blocking seats at search will sell out a flight needlessly.

    Bottom line, if you guys are smarter than those MIT grads that create software that figures this out for the airlines, then please prove it.

  • TonyA_says

    An OTA has a choice. They can use the cached results from their app provider (e.g. ITA, Amadeus, etc. ) or use their GDS provided API (or direct connect) to query live inventory.
    When they do the latter, they see the same thing we (humans) normally see when we use our GDS.
    A good OTA will always validate your selection.

    I consider myself a smart Travel Consultant working on behalf of my client. That said, I always run ITA matrix, Kayak, Hipmunk, Expedia and Cheaptickets queries on the same itinerary I do on GDS. If they come up with something a lot cheaper or better, I can always tell my client they have that option. My relationship with clients is above any search methodology :-)

  • Michael__K

    Who said anything about holding inventory?

    If someone gives their credit card information and presses “Buy”, and then discovers “the price is no longer available”, then it’s no longer available. It doesn’t matter how many shoppers are looking, it’s not available to any of them.

  • TonyA_says

    How else would you do this without holding seat inventory. The capacity of a flight is fixed. Remember what is being sold here – confirmed space for a specific flight(s) at a certain price.
    Mere presentation of a credit card does not mean a good sale. Your bank must approve the charges first. What if your bank declines?
    Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe many vendors selling questionable inventory are scams. That is why either you buy directly from an airline or examine your PNR first before you pay :-)

  • TonyA_says

    Who is you? The passenger?
    The 24 hour rule only applies if ticket was bought directly from airline.
    Travel agents do not have to void if they dont like.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Well, it’s not the pictures or the headlines that bring me back to the site every day . . . :-)

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Well, here’s an idea: Should I stop using photos altogether? Seriously, if you think I should stop, I can try.

  • bodega3

    I’d like to know which OTA’s show live inventory. I question that. OTA’s are NOT regulated, but the GDS is. I trust the GDS, I don’t trust online…not even the carriers website after being told they are not showing live inventory.

  • bodega3

    The ‘you’ is the DIY’er. But we have the same option.

  • bodega3

    How do you know this? We see it in the GDS. There can be one seat that multiple bookers go for and is you lose, the PNR gets repriced.

  • TonyA_says

    I’m a skeptic therefore I test. I don’t believe everything people (especially airline people) tell me.
    That said I have made many (enough to convince me) tests on Expedia on different international sites of theirs. IMO, Expedia will deliver a ticket as promised.
    There are good reasons why I prefer to use an OTA rather than issue tickets myself. I can name a few here:
    (1) access to local fares
    (2) access to foreign airlines or LCCs (not participating in ARC)
    (3) HACKING :-)

  • TonyA_says

    I think Chris’ point is that the caching excuse is a giant loophole ready to be exploited by lowlifes. That said, it is quite hard to tell (as a consumer) whether you are being baited and switched or are just looking at a “harmless” glitch as Chris calls it.

  • TonyA_says

    IMO that is not feasible. All they can do now is making the cache algo better.

  • TonyA_says

    Actually I love using the OTA sites to search for me. It makes my job a lot, lot easier :-)

  • bodega3

    I am willing to call something wrong, but if one books online, then they need to understand how this works. Sadly, we see so much more information than what is shared online that online bookers don’t know or understand what is going on and assumptions are made. What is being called bait and switch most likely isn’t. Fares change so many times a day, seats get sold while you are looking and even booking, that even agents get caught during the process.

  • bodega3

    I will do comparisons, but since I have found flights missing from OTA inventory, it isn’t apples to apples.

  • Travelnut

    I’ve had it happen on the UA site.

  • MissFitz88

    If you and your team feel that these photos are enhancing your site and increasing readership, then by all means keep them. I feel they detract from the seriousness of your good work; which I’ve enjoyed reading about for years.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I think the photos/pictures at the top of the page, and now in the gallery of articles, serve the same purpose as the avatars. It’s a readily identifiable marker for an article. It’s a device that works. I was just reinforcing what @MissFitz88:disqus observed. The new set of photos are just – off.

    I thought about suggesting that you replace the pictures with pictures of your cats, like you did a few months back, but the backlash on *that* was pretty loud. Darn. I liked the cat pictures. =^_^=

  • rpt777

    What we have here is dual parties practicing deception. The airlines want to show what the cost of government taxes are, and want to add them on to highlight that high cost. The Congress wants to hide these high taxes on travel. I think the answer is to show the total with a breakdown of fare+ taxes= total.
    The airlines complaint is that the travelers are highly taxed and the airlines portion of the fare is pretty small, yet high fares are not blamed on congress, they are blamed on the airlines.

  • rpt777

    Almost all the booking sites are not all inclusive and leave out many carriers who do not pay them . I almost gave up on trying to use them . I now occasionally use them to get an idea of fares, and then go to my favorite carrier and book directly.

  • Michael__K

    If you lose the race condition, then I already said that’s fair enough. But then the seat is gone and it shouldn’t be advertised a second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. time.

  • Michael__K

    The whole motive for caching the prices behind the search results is to avoid querying and holding live inventory and all the concurrency complexity (and slower performance) that would entail.

    And that means that when someone presses “Buy”, they may discover “the price is no longer available.” I think we agree that this is a legitimate, defensible scenario.

    But that last step — which generated “the price is no longer available” message — had to hit live inventory. At that point, the vendor KNOWS that its cache for this particular price is stale. It checked live inventory and the price wasn’t available. The cache needs to be updated.

    If you then start over and search again and again and you STILL continue to see the old (and still unavailable) price, then that is either a glitch or a shoddy implementation choice, IMO.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I remember when Continental started to charge to make a res by phone … I said, “Hmmmmm, I wonder if people realize that when all the humans are gone and we are forced to book online, nobody will help us or answer our questions.” Now it’s gone a step further with bait & switch. Much as I’d like to troll around for the cheapest fare, I don’t have the kind of time it takes input my information a thousand times to avoid the fraud. I’m with rpt, most of the time I use an OTA to find out who goes where, then book directly.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I agree, the illustrations seem to appeal to the lowest common denominator, another way of saying the dumbest. They seem to be trying to be sensational and attract attention … not the attention of thoughtful travellers but someone who watches TV all day. I’m a Chris Elliott fan from way back … if there’s a way to look at the last 4 or 5 illustrations, I would be happy to make specific comments.

  • TonyA_says

    I agree, some OTAs update as soon as they see the cached data is obsolete. Some don’t. I have actually been doing informal research on this for about 2 years. IMO, I see more problems with Orbitz/Cheaptickets compared to Expedia and Priceline. I do welcome cache pricing display regulations from the DOT. Either they must update the cache when an anomaly is discovered or temporarily remove the offending quote until the whole cache is updated – that is my recommendation.

    Also full disclosure of the type of e-ticketing engine is required.
    Are users being e-ticketed online during the same session, or not?
    Are they simply ordering online and getting ticketed offline?
    What is the maximum waiting period for e-ticket fulfillment?
    Where is the credit card being charged? What country?
    We can come up with a list :-)

    Similarly all agency fees need to published upfront with a conspicuous link in the front page. IMO more people get screwed using a lousy online agency than they do by airlines.

  • bodega3

    But that doesn’t mean you are getting the best fare, just the fare you see.

  • Guest

    I actually was going to ask if any of the woman in the recent group of pictures actually worked for you and if so, does your wife know, and are you hiring?

  • PsyGuy

    I actually was going to ask if any of the woman in the recent group of pictures actually worked for you and if so, does your wife know, do you take the pictures, and are you hiring?

  • Jim Cargill

    Anyone come across an instance where the update message is “Hey, we’ve now got a lower fare for you!” I guess not. :-)

  • Mel65

    I might believe this were truly just a caching issue if JUST ONCE, someone could show me where the fare displayed went DOWN prior to finalizing the purchase ;)

  • bodega3

    I have had that happen in my GDS! Fares change many times a day and they go down, as well as up.

  • bodega3

    Yes. In our GDS we have a pricing entry that does just that.

  • Lindabator

    Exactly – but folks don’t understand this

  • Lindabator

    Generally, prices go up as space sells out, so not the norm

  • Lindabator

    But as space sells OUT, the fare goes UP

  • Lindabator

    But not on the otas generally – folks do not realize that as space sells out, the fares go up.

  • TMMao

    It looks like TripAdvisor is still pulling the same tricks. Just did a search for that same trip and there was an incredibly cheap fare listed. But click on it and this message pops up:

    $336 – Current lowest fare. The $123 fare, found 7 hours ago, sold out.

    So their cache doesn’t even update for 7 hours?

  • bodega3

    Tripadvisor doesn’t sell tickets and they don’t sell hotel space. They provide links and get paid if you book via those links.

  • bodega3

    Sadly, they are not shown how this works, so assumptions are made of bait and switch.

  • Mel65

    I know… I was being facetious for the most part… but it sure would be a happy surprise for a change.

  • TMMao

    So who sells the flights then? Go to TripAdvisor, click on flights and it goes to the TripAdvisor flight booking page. There’s even a whole section below that explains why we should use TripAdvisor to book flights. How would anybody not in the ticket booking business know it’s not TripAdvisor selling the flights?

    BTW, their caching is now even worse:

    “$353 – Current lowest fare. The $144 fare, found 1 day ago, sold out.”

    Why TripAdvisor Flights?

    More Choices, Better Deals

    No need to shop multiple sites any more. We’ve already done that by
    searching hundreds of them for you– scouring premium airlines, low-cost
    carriers and the biggest online travel agencies for the best deals.
    We’ll even check alternate dates and nearby airports to help you save
    money, time, even sanity.

    In-Flight Experience

    Want Wi-fi? More legroom? Or even a seat that allows you to sleep
    perfectly flat? TripAdvisor Flights now makes it easier to find the
    amenities that can make or break your trip. Find which flights include
    Wi-Fi, live TV, power outlets, free baggage, and more.

  • bodega3

    Tripadvisor directs you to a variety of OTA and carrier sites. They are not an ARC ticketing agency.