The other day, we finally purchased our plane tickets for our trip to China and Mongolia. We’ve been planning this trip for a while, but recent life events led us to actually settle on some specific dates for our trip. However, like any good traveler (and anyone who wants to save money), we’ve been monitoring the prices of tickets for quite some time in hopes to get the best bang for our buck. This ended up being a waste of time, because on many of the popular airline booking sites, the price they give you when you’re about to buy a ticket can be much different than the price you’re shown at the beginning of the process.

Let the following story be a warning to anyone trying to play this game.

We decided to be flexible with our departure city in hopes of saving some money. Because we have friends and family in a numerous cities, we were considering flying to Beijing from Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Houston, L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle. We would obviously need to get ourselves to the departure city, but we knew we would have a free place to stay when we arrived. Some of these cities we would drive to, but others we would fly to, and some cheap domestic tickets would help us along the way if needed. This made our search more time consuming, but we felt it would be worth the time to save a few hundred dollars, especially considering the overall price of the tickets.

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We started with Kayak, and searched over various dates and all of the possible departure cities.

We eventually settled on some round trip tickets out of San Francisco to Beijing, because the price was a modest $900 including all taxes and fees. A domestic flight to San Francisco was also cheap, so we started the purchasing process. After a click, a bloop-bloop-bloop with pretty colors, and some website redirecting, we were then looking at the Orbitz website (that’s what Kayak does, for those of you who have never used it). The price on Orbitz was, as expected, the same. We entered our credit card information and answered all of the relevant questions and then clicked “purchase”. Then, site asked us to wait while our transaction was processed. But then all hell broke loose. Finally Orbitz presented us with a message stating that the price was now $1400, and the $900 price was invalid. Fortunately our credit card was not charged this new price, but nonetheless we were quite annoyed.

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We went back to the search pages of both Orbitz and Kayak and repeated our search. Sure enough, the flight from SFO to Beijing was still listed at $900. Next we opened Expedia, and they also listed the same $900 price. We then proceeded to book the flight, this time on Expedia, but again are presented with a similar error message informing us that the price had risen.

Perhaps this was a single error with that particular flight or airline? We tried another flight, this time out of LAX. After clicking all of the requisite buttons, the same thing happened again. Mind you, this was a different flight and a different airline as well!

This similar experience happened again with Travelocity, for yet another flight on a third airline.

Our frustration was definitely rising. We gave up for the evening and came back the next day, and purchased a ticket out of Atlanta. This time, there was no price increase. This particular flight was more than all of the booking sites had advertised previously, and more than we had hoped to pay, but still somewhat on par with similar flights from other cities. It wasn’t the excitement-inducing fare that we originally thought we were going to purchase, however.

In fact, the entire process left us disappointed. A few years ago something similar happened to us when we were traveling to Central America, but we blew it off as a glitch in the system. Now we believe that this happens much more often than we thought. The common theme was only that it was an international flight. I’ve never seen this on a domestic flight, though. Have any of you had similar experiences?

The whole ordeal was entirely disappointing, and somewhat of a buzz-kill given that this was our first step to embarking on an exciting adventure. It even made me want to call a travel agent. I feel as if my trust and faith in all of the popular online ticketing sites has been thrown out the window without a parachute.

Timothy O’Neil-Dunne wrote an eye-opening article at Tnooz in 2011 (now PhocusWire), “Why online airfare search is broken,” about airline ticketing websites. While the article is no longer published, he said,

There has been an overarching assumption amongst consumers and non-travel people that online travel agencies (OTA) find for the consumer the best prices…. Those who check travel frequently either on a generalist or even a specific nature, know this is a myth.

His article showed definitive proof that various online booking sites and the airlines that feed them will show different prices even at the same time, depending on which site you’re viewing. He claimed that you will get the “real” price only on the airline’s website, but even then, the prices fluctuate greatly. “It is against an airline’s DNA to want to have basic transparency in pricing,” he says. That’s something we’ve all been frustrated by, no doubt.

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2019 Update: this still resonates as true, don’t you think? Airline prices constantly fluctuate as the various airlines and re-sellers attempt to get the highest and yet most competitive price from consumers.

Unfortunately, purchasing plane tickets is a necessary evil. And no single airline will be able to fix this problem since these issues come from booking engines that aggregate across all airlines. Just one single data hiccup can ruin the entire experience.

At least we now have our tickets. Good luck to the rest of you! We’ve always been advocates of traveling over land while on long term-trips, even when the distances are great. Cultural and personal experiences are more likely to happen that way. This airfare game mumbo-jumbo further reinforces that belief, at least for our future trips.

We’ll be crossing the China-Mongolia border by land, perhaps on a train, or even a bus. Or better yet, we’ll do it on one of those furry Asian camels with our nomadic tent in tow.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Ugh, this sounds infuriating. I’ve never had that random price increase happen to me, but I’m pretty sure I would be ready to destroy something if it happened multiple times…

    We’re going to be buying tickets soon for a late summer trip to London (I feel like I already should have bought them months ago!) and I’m hoping it goes smoothly.

  2. Andy Hayes | Sharing Travel Experiences

    Airfare pricing is a complex game, to say the least, and I use the word game intentionally. A shame the airlines can’t just say, here’s the price, no fluff, no hassle, click here for extra peanuts.

    Although yes, I would agree with the above, booking with the airline directly is most often the best bet for a variety of reasons.

    Glad you got your tickets though!

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