Last modified: 2016/02/10
The original version of the FAQ that evolved into this web site described only one online source of plane reservations (the late, lamented Easy Sabre) because that's all there was. Now there are approximately fifteen gazillion web sites selling plane tickets. But setting up a system to sell tickets is a lot of work, so in reality most of those web sites funnel into a much smaller number of underlying systems. This means that you aren't likely to find a lot more from visiting a hundred sites than from visiting four or five. Good sites to start at are ITA Software, which uses its own search engine but doesn't sell tickets, and a couple of the comparison sites such as Kayak. For more detailed suggestions, see How do on-line reservations work.
Airlines' own web sites are a notable exception. Even though they are all backed by one of the standard search systems (increasingly a customized version of Orbitz), they each provide access to their own flights without any booking fee. No matter where you find a ticket, it's worth checking the airline's own site to see if it's a few dollars less there. Buying on the airline's own site frequently also makes it easier to pick seats or change tickets later.
Most sites are intended for relatively casual travellers, not road warriors who need to know the exact fare class of a ticket, so they can optimize frequent flyer miles and upgrades. For access to detailed fare and class availability information, see Expert Flyer, described later. It costs money, but if you care about that kind of stuff, it's well worth it.
For domestic US tickets and simple international tickets (e.g., a round trip from the US to somewhere else, bought at least a month ahead) the big three are as good a place to start as any.
Note: Some airline play chicken with the agencies in a dispute about who displays what and how much they pay. As a result, some airlines don't show up on Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz at all. If you're going somewhere where you'd expect to see flights on an airline and see nothing, you might want to check their site or a neutral search site like ITA Software to see if there's something worth going to their site to buy.
Travelocity is an online agent owned until recently by Sabre. In 2014 they contracted their back end operations to Expedia, and in early 2015 Sabre sold the site to Expedia.
Tickets can be issued as e-tickets or, at extra cost, by mail. There is also a great deal of travel destination information of variable usefulness. Unlike most other web-based systems, it sometimes lets you hold a reservation without buying it. Also handles hotels and rental cars. A nice fare watcher feature lets you list a few routes you're interested in, and it sends you e-mail when an interesting fare becomes available. They have a Vacation Deals! page that often has private fares, two-for-one deals, and the like. Their flexible search option provides a fare calendar, table of what fares are available on what dates, that's better than any other site I know. Unfortunately, just because a fare is available on a date doesn't mean that any actual seats are available at that fare, so a certain number of the fares are cruel jokes, great bargains if only the airline would sell you a seat at that fare which they won't.
Some fares are marked "good buy" which means that they're only available on Travelocity. But that doesn't mean that they're any cheaper than other fares. They're waiving the booking fee indefinitely, so their prices should be the same as you'll find on airline sites.
Travelocity includes a "last minute deals" feature which is a rebranded version of Site59, which Travelocity owns.
Expedia was Microsoft's flashy entrant into the web travel biz. In July 2001 they sold a controlling interest to USA Networks, owner of Home Shopping Network and other great cultural monuments. In August 2003, the two companies were merged under the extremely trendy name of IAC/InterActive Corp, along with hotels.com, Match.com and LendingTree. In 2005 they admitted that synergy is just a buzzword and spun it off as a separate company. It still has that Microsoft feel. The site is a bit noisy, but it's reasonably easy to negotiate and to find schedules and fares. You have to provide a credit card number to make a reservation, even if you don't want to buy immediately. Early on, when I tried to reserve, it said it the credit card link was down, no reservations possible, call a number in Florida if it's urgent. Yeah, right. (At Microsoft, quality is job 1.1.) It seems to work better now. There's also lots of promos and tie-ins, with Expedia-only special fares. You can sign up for weekly e-mail about best fares on routes you select. They're waiving the booking fee indefinitely, so their prices should be the same as you'll find on airline sites.
Orbitz was intended to be the "killer" airline ticket web site. Founded by United, Northwest, Continental, Delta, and American, it was sold in October 2004 to Cendant, a large travel company that owns Avis rent-a-car and Ramada Inns and dozens of other familiar chains, then in July 2007 was spun off as a standalone company along with some smaller travel companies that Cendant bought along the way. At least 30 airlines including the founders are Orbitz charter affiliates, which means they give all of their web fares to Orbitz. It has a very nice lowest fare search engine. You can tell it to add alternate airport within 70 miles, and it gives you the possible routings, cheapest first. It now lets you give a range of dates, or say that you want to take a weekend trip in a particular month, and it gives you a grid showing the lowest available fare for each combination of departure and return dates. They promise unbiased fare and schedule listings, and have agreements with affiliate airlines to include all publicly available fares (a term that is harder to define than it looks) such as web specials. Their search engine does a more thorough job than others (it runs on racks of cheap PCs rather than on expensive mainframe computers) so it'll often find fares and connections that are entirely valid but not shown on other systems. For domestic US tickets on the airlines they include, they're hard to beat, although like other online agencies, they don't include Southwest. For international tickets, particularly on anything more complex than a round-trip, they can be very hit and miss. Try building your trip one leg at a time and watch the price zoom up and down. They also have some spiffy customer service, e.g., they can call you or send a text message to your mobile phone or PDA a few hours before flight time to tell you your gate and whether there are delays. They're waiving the booking fee indefinitely on tickets where all legs are on the same airline, so their prices should be the same as you'll find on airline sites.
is owned by nine European airlines and the Amadeus GDS. Its coverage of the European majors is good, but keep in mind that on many European routes you can find something cheaper on a low-cost airline that doesn't participate with Amadeus. (See Fare Searches below to find services link to the airlines that Opodo doesn't.) It's intended for European audiences although anyone can use it, so tickets are priced in pounds or euros.
Opodo's user registration is, ah, challenging; no matter what I do, it insists I have entered an unknown user or password or the e-mail address for password recovery doesn't match the user name, even though I copied them from confirmation messages that Opodo just sent. So buy tickets without registering.
Internet Travel Network is now part of American Express. It's a WWW-based flight booking system. You make reservations, using Apollo, which are then ticketed by American Express, unless you entered via another agency's web site. Several other sites on the net including several airlines have ``private label'' connections to ITN, but it's the same system, usually just with slightly different screen backgrounds and titles. The base ITN system uses data from Apollo, but apparently some of the private label versions use other CRS.
Worldspan is another large international CRS. They provide a Web availability and pricing system, which underlies the web sites of participating agents as well as the Delta and Northwest web sites, only available via customer sites, not on their own site. It's the system that underlies Expedia and to some extent Orbitz Galileo's owner Travelport is in the process of buying Worldspan and will presumably merge the two.
Cheap Tickets originally sold mostly cheap tickets to Hawaii, but is now a general purpose online agent. I gather that unlike most other web sites, the live agents at their 800 number have access to fares not on the web site and often not available through other sites. Owned by Cendant, being spun off in the same travel company as Orbitz, although the sites remain separate.
AmadeusLink, was started in 1987 by four European airlines and in 1995 absorbed System One which started a long time ago as Eastern Airlines' reservation system. They offer extensive schedule and availability info, along with rental car, hotel, and destination info. For bookings, you need to use a subscribing travel agency, such as Opodo, or a site built on their AmadeusLink system. The AmadeusLink booking systems all link into the same site, so other than some of the graphics, the function they provide is identical.
A meta-search looks at lots of other sites and gives you a combined result that is supposed to have the lowest fare. All of these work, but in each case it appears that they only search sites that will pay them a commission. The commission doesn't affect your fare, but it does mean that there are other sites that might have lower fares that they don't search. In particular, you'll never find low-price airlines like Southwest and Ryanair.
Hipmunk is ain interesting approach to flight search using what they call an "agony index" that trades off price, length of flight time of day and other factors. The display is time bars similar to ITA's, but sorted differently and with slightly different options like no red-eyes. They don't sell tickets, but link to Orbitz or the airlines once you've selected your flights. It's an interesting idea, although my agony index (I hate red-eyes and tight seating but don't mind a connection so long as there's an airline club I can use) appears rather different from theirs.
Mobissimo is a meta-search that searches lots of other web sites for a pair of cities and dates and shows you what fares it found.
Kayak and Sidestep are meta-searches, systems that search multiple airline web sites to make a combined listing with links you can click through to the various sites to buy. They work well, but as with all combo sites, there are usually interesting sites they don't search so you still have to look for yourself. They were originally separate competing sites but the companies merged.
Pricegrabber offers price comparisons of everything from computer parts to hotels, now including plane tickets. It's pretty slick, but the list of places they search seems limited.
Fare compare isn't really a meta-search; it takes fare information directly from the airlines to let you find the cheapest dates on routes of interest.
Yapta checks airline web sites to see if the fare for trips of interest has dropped since the last time you checked. Much of the functionality is bundled into a very intrusive browser plugin that I haven't tried.
OneTravel offers booking and ticketing. They used to have a "fare beater" feature with negotiated and "white label" fares, but it's gone. Too bad. It's a competent but ordinary online agent now. Cheapseats is another portal into the same system.
Travelweb, also known as Lowestfare, is a subsidiary of Priceline. It offers the usual array of tickets, with lots of links to Priceline.
ITA Software builds the search engine used by Orbitz and an increasing number of airline sites, and you can use a copy of the latest version of their search system. No booking, you have to take what you find and book elsewhere. It's by far my favorite tool to explore what's available when, keeping in mind that it can't see low fare airlines not in the GDS that provide its data. Google has bought ITA, but they don't seem likely to make big changes to what ITA provides.
Qixo searches two dozen airline sites and returns a combined list of the lowest fares found for route. If you book through them, there's a $20 booking fee, but of course once you know the airline and times, there's nothing keeping you from booking up the same flights on another site.
Yahoo Travel offers fare calendar searches using Travelocity's engine; you give it two cities and it helps you find the lowest fares and the dates on which they're available. It says US and Canada only, but it will actually do searches anywhere.
Air Ninja offers a good directory of low-fare airlines that don't sell through the usual online agencies. You tell it where you want to go, it offers links to the airlines that go there. Coverage appears good of both US and foreign airlines.
Cheap Flights USA and Cheap Flights UK offers a nice search engine for low cost tickets from the US and UK, many of which don't appear in the major search engines. Not a travel agency, they link to other agents and airlines where they presumably collect a referral fee (which is fine, it doesn't affect the price of the ticket.)
Foundem searches multiple sites in the UK. Supposed to include both regular agent sites and low-fare airlines, but it missed a lot of the low-fare ones when I looked.
Sky Scanner offers an excellent search engine for cheap flights within the UK and Europe. Don't miss their month views with little bar charts of daily fares.
Flight Atlas offers cute animated maps showing what routes are available among European airports, with links to the airlines serving them. (To me it looks like of like a game of Battleship.)
Cheapo has comprehensive info on European discount airlines including a map that shows where they all go, and frequent blog style news items on new and changed service.
AirTreks has a spiffy web site that helps construct and price multi-stop and round-the-world international travel. They're a travel agency, the site estimates the price, exact prices and tickets come from live agents at the agency. (That's what you want, no computer can navigate the swamp of international routes and fares very well.)
Farepoint provides a large database of fares via UK travel agents. The site links to some of the agents who offer their service.
Flights.com (formerly called TISS) is an online database in Germany with current airfares provided by a group of consolidators. They offer departures from a lot of different countries, now including the U.S. They claim the prices they offer are the best available. For routes within the US they act as a front end to flifo. One reader reports a bad experience with their US agent, rebooking his reservation in a way that lost the discount fare he'd reserved, although he'd had good results with their UK agent.
Air Fare tracks lowest fares among major U.S. cities, with daily updates of significantly lower fares. Worldspan-based Res and ticketing also available.
Deal Checker compares fares and hotel prices from major UK web sites.
Farecast attempts to predict future airfares so you can pick the best time to buy your tickets. Their list of cities, originally only Boston and Seattle, has expanded to a modest list of domestic airports, so if they happen to cover your favorite route, it's an interesting idea.
Expert Flyer provides detailed seat and fare availability information, similar to what a travel agent sees. Five day free trial, then limited access for $5/mo, full access for $10/mo. If you fly a lot, it's invaluable for finding which flights have seat upgrades available, which ones have seats at particular fares, and other detailed info for finding the exact flights one wants.
Flightcaster uses historical data and secret patent pending algorithms to predict how late your plane will be. Start checking about six hours ahead so you know when to get to the airport. Also available as an iPod app and on Blackberries.
Flightstats provides realtime flight departure and arrival information along with related goodies like airport delays, historical lateness stats and more. With free registration, get alerts by email or SMS.
Expedia now has real-time flight ops including times and gates for major US airlines.
The Track A Flight service (formerly Flyte Trax, same organization as flytecomm.com) also provides real-time position map and ETA for most domestic flights, by flight number, or departing or arriving airports. It's as nice as TheTrip.
Flight Arrivals offers impressively complete arrival info for most US airports. (It even has info for the teensy Ithaca NY airport.) No maps, but lots of data.
Each of the GDS has a web site where you can look up the details of the record for a reservation if you have the locator code, generally a sequence of six letters or digits, and the passenger's last name. A single trip can have information on more than one system. For example, if you make a United Airlines reservation on Travelocity, the main Travelocity record is on Sabre, but there's a copy on United's home system Galileo, as well. Each system has a different locator code, and it can be hard to find the codes for other than the original system. Virtually There sometimes shows the locator for other system records as the Confirmation field, although you have to figure out or guess which system it's on.
Every travel agent except Orbitz uses one of the GDS to make its reservations so the master record for each trip is available through one of the systems. The online systems usually show the locator code on one of the confirmation screens, and any airline or local travel agent will tell your the locator for your reservation if you ask. Since Orbitz uses its direct connect technology to make reservations directly with many airlines, the master record is on Orbitz itself and as far as I can tell you can't tell the airline's locator until you get your boarding pass.
Virtually There can show records from Sabre inclding reservations on Travelocity.
Check My Trip can show records from Amadeus, including reservations on many European airlines.
View Trip can show records from Galileo, including reservations on United.
Some of these systems will also show rental car and hotel info if they're included in the same records.
PLEASE NOTE: I am not a travel agent, just an interested traveller. Everything I know about on-line travel info is in this FAQ. Don't write or call me asking for fare quotes, packages, or any other travel agent info, because I don't have it.
Airline information on-line on the Internet
Airline info home page
On-line special fares and services
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