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New Flight Search Engines: Convenience Vs. Cost?

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It seems like every day another online booking website crops up with a new plan for how to find and book cheap flights. Our tech guru Phil Baker tests out the new sites and breaks down what’s a real innovation and what’s just a gimmick.

Suppose you book air travel online: does where you search really make a difference? I tried out the latest sites to see how easy they were to use and which ones offered the best fares. Unlike Expedia and Travelocity, these sites are mostly search engines that gather the information from other sites such as Orbitz, Hotwire, and the airlines directly. They purport to make comparison easy and make their money from their referrals and other ads on the sites, rather than from your booking flights with them.

For this test, I looked for the best price for an economy round trip flight between San Diego and Boston in mid-October. I confined the search to non-stop and one-stop flights. Here’s what I found:

Bing Travel

Bing is the search engine from Microsoft, and Bing Travel (bing.com/travel) is their travel search page for flights and hotels. I found it to be cluttered with display ads and distracting photos and videos. As with most of the sites, you enter your destination, dates and preferences in a small box, much like Expedia, and up come hundreds of flights in list form in order of price, but with seemingly random departure times.

The Bing listings for my trip search returned more than 20 pages of results. It often tabulated more than a dozen listings of the same flight, because there’s a separate line for the same flight for each of the booking sites and for each of the code-sharing airlines. (Code sharing is when a single flight is listed under different airlines and flight numbers.) That makes it nearly impossible to quickly find the most relevant flights. For example, American had a good flight, but was it was listed on page 8 because it was about $20 more expensive than the code-sharing United and Continental flights that filled most of the first seven pages. The best price I found was a United one-stop for $339.

Bing also had a separate option in its search box to just search JetBlue. It’s likely a paid spot, but there was no mention of that. The Bing travel page often opened up with Priceline checked under a “compare search” list, something Priceline likely pays for. But if you don’t uncheck the box, after filling out the form and hitting the search button, the Priceline window pops up, covering up the window with the results of the Bing search. Clearly, Microsoft is sacrificing its ease of use for advertising revenue.

Bottom line: Bing Travel makes it just too difficult to find the best flights quickly and has a cluttered interface. Rating: Fair

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