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Flight Search Engines Breakdown: The Best Tools for Booking Flights Online

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You might know the best time to book a flight, but what tools are you using to make that reservation? We know that Peter says it’s always best to pick up the phone and call the airline before you book, but you need to do some research online first. Here’s a quick guide to help you understand the different online travel agencies and metasearch engines available. An online travel agency (OTA) is actually selling you their inventory—click here to find out the different selling models—while a metasearch engine aggregates fares from OTAs and the airlines themselves, taking you to those pages to book directly.

The good news is that there are several different online options and each has something to add to your flight search.

Type Airline Inventory Booking Options Low Price Guarantee Plan Flash Sales 24 Hr. Customer Service
Orbitz Online Travel Agency 148 Airlines Worldwide Basic search; three days before/after option Yes Last-minute deals Yes for pre-departure
Expedia Online Travel Agency 153 Airlines Worldwide Basic search; free cancellation within 24 hours of booking Yes Only with hotels and packages Yes for pre-departure
Kayak Metasearch Engline 550 Airlines Worldwide Basic search, with airport map to select multiple airports and calendar of airfares No Last-minute deals Yes for pre-departure
CheapOair Online Travel Agency Does not list all, but can search for one. Basic with options to pick exact flight and arrival times Yes Last-minute deals Yes for pre-departure
Priceline Online Travel Agency Airlines are not listed. Basic with bidding options Yes Last- minute deals Yes for pre-departure
Hipmunk Metasearch Engine Airlines are not listed. Basic search with flight timeline feature No Last-minute deals Yes for pre-departure
Travelocity Metasearch Engine 160 Airlines Worldwide Basic search No Last-minute deals Yes for pre-departure.

Orbitz and CheapOair

If you just want to book a flight and have no preferences for flight times or seats, then Orbitz or CheapOair are good travel sites to check out first. These two online travel agency sites have basic searches with competitive prices that make booking a flight painless.



Orbitz allows customers to search three days before/after their ideal day so they can get the cheapest price. The travel site offers a Price Assurance Policy where, if someone books the same flight cheaper within 24 hours of when the trip was booked, the customer will receive a credit for 110 percent of the difference.cheapoair

CheapOair does not offer the same policy, but allows customers to plan their trips by price, region, or interest. Another perk of this travel site is that if something comes up four hours after the trip was booked, the customer will receive a full refund.




If you’re not a one-click traveler (and prefer to go through each flight option to look at flight details), then Expedia is for you. On the search page, each flight has all details available. In those details are baggage prices, times, and full final price breakdown. Another perk to the flight details is the seat preview option, where you can pick your seat on a map of the plane without ever opening another tab or leaving the list of all possible flights. Expedia also offers a price match plan—similar to Orbitz—but will refund the difference, along with a $50 voucher on your next booking.



Priceline lets you place a bid for a flight or hotel, if an airline or hotel is willing to match the price. The site is for those who are comfortable not having complete control or the option of several preferences. Even if you are new to bidding, there are hints to help with the entire process. However, the name your price option does not guarantee the preferred flight or airport of the bidder. Whoever meets the bid will get booked, without changes allowed.



If you prefer booking in advance, Travelocity offers its customers low fare alerts through its FareWatcherPlus. This makes looking at price options everyday easier and less stressful. You simply create a free account and select 10 destinations, then watch the deals offered each day. This feature will even help you pick possible destinations based on your interests.

Hipmunk and Kayak


Hipmunk and Kayak are helpful for flight comparisons. Kayak displays a map of the best days to book your flight, as well as chances for a cheaper flight if you wait a few days before booking. For example, on the left side of the page is a price trend graph recommending whether to buy or wait, along with the confidence level. When looking at a flight to New York, the Price Trend reflects that they are 61 percent sure that prices will rise within 7 days, so their advice is to buy the tickets. Instead of only relying on the Price Trend box, there is also a calendar of all prices for the searched trip, letting you see how much prices might go up or how to pick the best day to fly.


Hipmunk makes it easier to select specific travel times with their timeline. This allows travelers to purchase tickets based on duration and time. Instead of having pre-determined times—like some other sites that only allow travelers to select morning, afternoon, or evening—Hipmunk gives the option of choosing specific departure and arrival time, to the minute. This option is perfect for those who are on a tight travel schedule.

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By Siena Mazero for