Tips for Buying Airline Tickets on the Internet

By John R. Levine, Margaret Levine Young

People buy lots of airline tickets online. Although the online travel sites aren’t as good as the very best human travel agents, the sites are now better than most agents and vastly better than bad travel agents.

Some airlines offer on their own websites some cheap fares that aren’t available any other way. The airlines know that it costs them much less to let the web do the work, and they pay you (sometimes in the form of a hefty discount) to use their websites.

The theory of airline tickets

Three giant airline computer systems in the United States — Sabre, Galileo/Worldspan, and Amadeus — handle nearly all airline reservations in the United States. (A site such as this is known as a CRS, or a computer reservations systems, or a GDS, for global distribution system.) Google’s ITA Software is trying to get into the GDS business, although so far their only GDS customer is Cape Air, a small regional airline.

Although every airline has a “home” GDS, the systems are all interlinked so that you can, with few exceptions, buy tickets for any airline from any GDS. Some low-price, start-up airlines are available by way of GDS, but others — notably, Southwest — don’t participate in any of these systems but have instead their own websites, where you can check flights and buy tickets.

In theory, all these systems show the same data; in practice, however, they get a little out of sync with each other. If you’re looking for seats on a sold-out flight, an airline’s home system is most likely to have that last, elusive seat. If you’re looking for the lowest fare to somewhere, check all three systems because a fare that’s marked as sold out on one system often mysteriously reappears on another system.

Also check Orbitz which has direct-connect access to many airlines, bypassing GDS altogether.

Some fare categories are visible only to travel agents and don’t appear on any websites, so check with a good agent before buying if you’re taking a short expensive trip during the week or an international trip more complex than a round trip. On the other hand, many airlines offer some special deals that are only on their websites and that agents often don’t know about.

Official international fares to most countries are set by way of the IATA (International Air Transportation Association) cartel, so computer systems usually list only IATA fares for international flights. If you need to buy tickets sooner than a month ahead, you can often find entirely legal consolidator tickets for considerably less than the official price, so an online or offline agent is extremely useful for finding the best price.

International airlines also have some impressive online offers, most notably from Cathay Pacific, which usually has a pass that includes a ticket from the United States to Hong Kong and then unlimited travel all over Asia.

Here’s some distilled wisdom about buying tickets online:

  • Check online systems. See which flights are available and the range of prices. Check sites that use different GDSs.

  • After you find a likely airline, check that airline’s site. Look for special, web-only deals. If a low-fare airline flies the route, be sure to check that one, too.

  • Check prices on flights serving all nearby airports. An extra 45 minutes of driving time can save you hundreds of dollars.

  • For a trip more complicated than a simple round trip, check with a travel agent. You can check by phone, email, or the agent’s website to see whether he can beat the online price, and buy your tickets from the agent unless the online deal is better.

  • For international tickets, check for consolidator tickets. Do everything in this list and check both online and with your agent, particularly if you don’t qualify for the lowest published fare. For complex international trips, such as around the world, agents can usually find routes and prices that the automated systems can’t.

  • Don’t overbid. If you bid on airline tickets at a travel auction website, make sure that you already know the price at which you can buy the ticket.

Before looking at online agents, check out ITA Software. This company produces the fare search engine used by Orbitz and many airline sites. ITA’s own site has a version that just searches and doesn’t try to sell you any tickets, with more search options than most of its clients offer. They’ve been bought by Google, and their results are also integrated into some Google searches.

If you hate flying or would rather take the train, Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada offer online reservations. If you’re visiting Europe, a Eurailpass can make sense if you plan to take a whole lot of trains, or check schedules and fares for most European railways at the excellent Loco2 or Capitaine Train. You can also book cruises online.

Major airline ticket sites, other than individual airlines, include

  • Expedia: The Microsoft entry into the travel biz is now a part of the Interactive media empire.

  • Hotwire: This multi-airline site offers discounted leftover tickets and rental cars and hotels.

  • Orbitz: Orbitz is the high-tech entry into the travel biz, with most airlines’ weekly web specials.

  • Priceline: Priceline now offers discounted tickets like Hotwire, the “name your own price” reverse auction for which they’re best known, and regular tickets like other agents.

  • Travelocity: Travelocity is the Sabre entry into the travel biz. Yahoo! Travel and the AOL travel section are both Travelocity underneath.

Fare-comparison sites abound, including Kayak, Mobissimo, Hipmunk, and FareCompare. None of these are comprehensive enough to depend on, but they’re worth a look if you want to try to find that elusive last cheap seat.

More about online airlines

Because the online airline situation changes weekly, so do your research. Check out to see a current list of online airline websites, web specials, and online travel agents.