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Fare Dancing with SideStep

(May 25, 2002)

While plotting the annual family summer pilgrimage to Reno/Lake Tahoe, I was dismayed to discover airfares from Chicago to Reno had literally gone sky high from previous years. Knowing the complexities of airfare pricing, I knew there had to be a better deal out there—it was just a matter of finding it.

Fare Game

I began my fare search on all the large online travel sites, including Travelocity, Expedia, OneTravel, and Orbitz. The lowest fare offered was $405 per ticket on Delta. No thanks, especially since I paid $250 per ticket last year.

Next I tried Southwest; however, when I tried to search, I got a message stating that the requested flight information was for a date that is beyond their current booking schedule. Southwest only books within a five-month span.

While I searched the aforementioned online travel sites, SideStep was searching too. SideStep is a nifty little tool you can download for free that searches over 120 travel suppliers' inventories in real time while you are searching on other sites. It displays the results in an easy-to-understand format where fares can be sorted by airline, price, flight times, or number of stops.

SideStep offers not only "Web only" fares, which it pulls directly from the airlines' sites, but also negotiated/consolidator fares on some airlines. It obtains these negotiated/consolidator fares from other travel intermediaries. For example, it will find OneTravel's "White Label" fares if they are offered in your specified search.

It's important to note that SideStep is not a computer reservations system like SABRE, Worldspan, or Apollo, nor is it affiliated with them. SideStep is totally unbiased, and makes its profit via a "finders fee" if you book. When you're ready to buy, SideStep sends you directly to the seller's site.

For my search, SideStep ferreted out the best fare: $221 (including tax) on Frontier Airlines. Knowing this was as good as it gets, I decided to buy. The only glitch was that I had a little trouble getting four tickets at that price.

SideStepping

Initially I only searched for one ticket, and when I went to purchase four tickets, the fare I wanted disappeared. In fact, four tickets turned into $333 per ticket for the exact same flights. Apparently, there weren't enough seats at the $221 fare. But, why didn't the system offer me the seats that were available at the $221 fare? I thought this was odd and changed the search to three tickets—the $221 fare came back. Again, I tried to purchase four tickets at $221—the fare went back up to $333.

This was frustrating, the fare was obviously available, but it wouldn't let me purchase four tickets. Being an experienced Internet geek, I then decided to open two browsers on my computer and try two simultaneous searches, one for three tickets and the other for one ticket. Sure enough, the $221 fare was offered in both searches. Eventually, I ended up making two separate purchases. I got my fare, but most people wouldn't have thought to open two browsers. I contacted SideStep to find out what happened.

I spoke with Phil Carpenter, SideStep's vice president of marketing, who seemed amused by my two-browser method for getting the fare. He stated that Frontier likely had only three tickets left in the lower fare bucket, a term used by travel suppliers to denote a block of seats at a certain price. Carpenter thought the reason I was not offered the remaining tickets at the lower price was that Frontier's website wasn't sophisticated enough to simultaneously sell me three tickets at one price and one at another.

So how did I get four tickets at the price I wanted if there weren't enough seats available in the lower fare bucket? Carpenter suspects that when I ran two searches at exactly the same time, each of the different SideStep browser sessions pulled back the lower fare for me. The two-browser sessions captured the lowest fare, allowing me to purchase four tickets at the $221 fare.

"When you bought tickets three and four, although the Frontier website didn't technically have ticket number four available within that fare bucket, the site let the sale slide through, as that's the fare that had been displayed in SideStep at the initiation of our session with the Frontier website."

Stepping Around

After years of booking online reservations, my advice is never stop with the first search. Play with the system, because after all, computers aren't perfect thinking machines. In another recent incident, I found a great rate for a Cape Cod hotel, but the rate disappeared when I entered my hotel membership number. I took my membership number out and the lower rate came back. How this happens, I have no idea. One thing I know for sure, if you are searching for travel deals for hotels, cars, and airfares, have SideStep on. The chances of it finding a lower fare make it worthwhile.

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