#travel search engines
Is the Best Travel Search Engine Around the Corner?
By Seth Kugel February 14, 2012 2:04 pm February 14, 2012 2:04 pm
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times The offices of Joy World Cruise Tour agency in New York.
I remember the days when it wasn’t faceless online search engines that helped me find the best deals on flights, but real live people called travel agents. Ivica got me a great bargain to Croatia. Alla helped me maneuver domestic flights within Russia, with an unbeatable price. And Fanny planned my dream trip to China with expert ease.
Actually, it’s pretty easy to remember those days: they were just last month. Those trips were actually only tests — tests of the real-life niche travel agencies in New York City and elsewhere that serve specific immigrant communities, pitched against the popular Web sites — like Expedia. Kayak. Vayama — that have become go-tos for travelers.
The result: Nearly every time, travel agents bested the Internet big boys on both price (the objective part of the test) and service (what you might call the essay question). In other words, the agents suggested alternate routes, gave advice on visas and just generally acted, well, more human than their computer counterparts. (All research was all done in mid-January for trips in March.)
In some cases, the agents trounced the competition. The best bargain I found was for an imagined two-week jaunt to Croatia, visiting Zagreb, the inland capital, but with the bulk of my time spent along the Dalmatian coast and in the coastal city of Dubrovnik. I tested online search engines for flights to both cities, checking various dates and paying attention principally to price, but keeping an eye on the number and length of layovers.
I first tried Travelocity. which gave me an astonishingly high $2,923 round-trip fare to Dubrovnik. Orbitz came up with $1,313, and allowed me to sort the results by travel time, a nice touch. Kayak’s price, $1,008, was better; Vayama — which frustratingly doesn’t add up total trip time — came up with $862; and Expedia, after much shuffling of dates, was the online winner with a quote of $798.
Then I called Pan Adriatic Travel. a Croatian-owned agency in Astoria, Queens, recommended by Sandra Ribicic Ballabio, a Croatian New Yorker who gained the unwieldy Italian part of her name only recently when she married my friend Frank.
“John” answered — he was really Ivica Glavinic, the owner, using an English-friendly name — and asked what I was planning to do in Croatia. I told him, noting that I could fly into and out of either Dubrovnik or Zagreb.
“You don’t want to go to Zagreb and come back from Zagreb!” he practically shouted — common knowledge to him, apparently. “You want to go to Zagreb, go down the coast, come back from Dubrovnik. I’ll send you an e-mail in five minutes.”
His fare: $480, taxes included. That’s 40 percent off the cheapest online flight I had found. The catch: I had only an hour to commit. But if I had really been planning the trip, I certainly would have.
When I called Mr. Glavinic later and revealed that I was a journalist, he said those deals don’t always pop up — I had been lucky. “But I can always get you a better deal” than online sites, he added. I don’t think his boast was an idle one. In years of booking trips to Brazil through BACC Travel. a Brazilian agency based in New York, which I retested this time around while helping a friend book a trip from Boston, I can’t remember a time they couldn’t at least slightly beat the online price.
Other tests of Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, Ecuadorean and Indian agencies resulted in victories or virtual ties with my invented travel scenarios. Only in one case — a straight New York to Manila round-trip request — did the Web score a definitive victory over an agent at a Filipino storefront in Woodside, Queens, and then only by about $50.
But as my itineraries got more complicated, the search engines had even more trouble keeping pace with the agencies. At Delgado Travel. an Ecuadorean-owned agency with branches around the city (as well as across the United States, Canada, Latin America and Europe), I asked about a trip that included Quito and Cuzco, Peru, the jumping-off point for visits to Machu Picchu. An agent quoted me $1,213, beating (albeit just barely) the $1,294 route I found using ITA Software by Google, a site that finds the cheapest flights but does not book them. Vayama was second at $1,386.
When I went to Kayak and reverse-engineered the specific dates and flights I got at Delgado, I could indeed match their price, meaning that with more hours spent online, I perhaps could have done just as well. But most of the time even reverse engineering couldn’t match the agencies’ prices. That’s because many of the agencies are consolidators, meaning they negotiate discount rates with airlines on specific routes in exchange for a promise of volume sales.
It is generally true that the online engines will find the best domestic coach fares — although even that can get complicated. Southwest flights don’t appear on most search engines. Travelers with very flexible dates or routes they fly frequently should sign up for alerts from sites like airfarewatchdog.com to stay on top of special offers.
I took things up a notch with even more complicated itineraries in Russia and China. My Russian trip included stops in Moscow, Kazan and Irkutsk. My Chinese route was New York-Beijing-Chengdu-Hangzhou-New York. (Both are plausible, if ambitious, two-week trips.)
For the Russian plan, the search engine results varied widely, from a jaw-dropping $5,199 on Kayak to $1,373 on Vayama. I headed to Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave in Brooklyn, and learned how easy it was to find these niche agencies. Stepping out of the subway, I punched “travel agency” into the Google Maps app on my phone. Among the results was Bella’s Travel. Before sending me to an agent, the receptionist asked “Do you have a visa?” I hadn’t thought of that, and it turns out they are tricky to get — but Bella’s could help, for $70 in addition to the visa fee.
She then sent me over to a very pleasant agent named Alla, who quickly started tapping on her computer. When I stressed my dates were flexible, she conjured up a $1,301 fare. Total time spent: 15 minutes, much less than I spent online. (Though I had traveled to Brighton Beach, I could have just called — true of all the agencies I visited.)
And you don’t have to live in New York — just seek out the agents online. A clue you’ve come to the right place: the Web site looks as if it were designed a decade ago, does not have online searching, and directs you to call a phone number associated with a real address. It’s possible you may run into language issues, but every spot I tried had solid English speakers.
After testing several Chinese agencies in Flushing, Queens, I tried just that with an online search for Chinese travel specialists, and came upon USChinaTrip.com. I e-mailed them with my dates and cities, and they got back to me within a few hours. Their price: $1,369. That beat out, though barely, a deal found by Fanny at Joy World Travel in Flushing. But it soundly bested the online search engines again, which would have charged me $356 more for the dubious privilege of dealing with a machine instead of a human.
BACC Travel, 16 West 46th Street, New York; (212) 730-1010; bacctravel.com .
Bella’s Travel, 253 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; (718) 332-1643; bellastravel.com .
Delgado Travel, various locations; (718) 426-0500 (in New York), (800) 335-4236 (elsewhere); www.delgadotravelusa.com .
Joy World Travel Inc. 135-20 39th Avenue, Suite HL 210, Flushing, Queens; (718) 460-5100; no Web site.
Pan Adriatic Travel, 34-08 Broadway, Astoria, Queens; (718) 777-0555; panadriatic.com .