Tue, Oct 18, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Fine-tuning your flight search

Travel search engines are becoming more sophisticated by ditching the one-size-fits-all approach to booking a flight and supplying users with results tailored to their specific needs

By Susan Stellin  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Even though its functionality is limited, the launch of Google’s new flight search feature is good news for travelers.

Photo: Bloomberg

Last month, Google introduced the first version of its new flight search feature (Google.com/flights) and the response has mostly focused on what it does not offer. Right now, it can search only for round-trip tickets for select domestic destinations. And while it is much faster than other travel search engines, it does not display fares from all the airlines that serve a particular route.

Sean Carlson, a Google spokesman, said the current flight search is only an “early look” at what is in the pipeline and that more options will be added as engineers integrate technology from ITA Software, which Google bought earlier this year.

Though Google’s debut may have been premature, its foray into flight search has shaken up the competitive landscape, which is good news for travelers. One notable change is that travel search engines are finally moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to booking a flight, and are building tools that answer specific questions about different types of trips. Here are some of the most pertinent queries that search engines are currently taking on.

WHAT IS THE TICKET PRICE, INCLUDING BAG FEES?

Most search engines give you only the price of a ticket. But escalating fees for baggage, preferred seats and other extras have made some passengers wish they could see the total cost of a flight. Kayak.com has a fix — at least for the cost of checked luggage. On the left side of the fare results page, a link allows users to “Add baggage” to the fares Kayak has found.

“You can enter the number of bags you’re going to check, and we will instantly reprice all of those flights for you,” said Robert Birge, Kayak’s chief marketing officer. Though Kayak does not display fares from Southwest — which allows two free checked bags but does not share its fare data with other Web sites — this feature makes Kayak a good choice if you are going to check a bag when you fly.

IS THE TRAIN LESS EXPENSIVE?

Hipmunk.com, a travel search engine that made its debut last year, automatically includes Amtrak prices and departure times when you search for flights on a route in the US that is also served by the train. Adam Goldstein, one of Hipmunk’s founders, said that is an especially popular feature for trips between Boston, New York and Washington, but that it also appeals to people traveling on other short routes, like Chicago to Milwaukee or Seattle to Portland.

Hipmunk even highlights which trains have Wi-Fi, and its bar graph interface makes it easy to compare travel times and prices: The time bar stretches from the departure time to the arrival time for each flight and train. Hipmunk is known for taking a more visual approach to presenting information (rather than showing a long list of flights), but other travel sites, including Google, are experimenting with maps and graphs as well.

WHEN IS THE CHEAPEST TIME TO TRAVEL?

Most travel Web sites now allow users to search for fares on dates close to the ones you initially input, so you can potentially save money by shifting your itinerary by a day or two. But for some trips — like a weekend visit with a friend — you may want to be even more flexible, looking for the cheapest time to travel in the next month or more.

My favorite site for this type of search is ITA Software’s Matrix search tool, which lets you select an option called “See calendar of lowest fares.” Once you enter the earliest date you can travel and the number of nights you want to stay, a calendar shows the lowest price for each departure date in the next month.

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