By Kit Kiefer
Flying ain’t what it used to be. If you’ve been following our early-morning series of vintage travel ads on Twitter, you’ve been seeing a lot of ads from the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when air travel really took off. And what have you been seeing? Sumptuous meals. Super-attentive service. Arrivals where they practically let you off at the door of your hotel. And fares that honestly are not too much different from today’s best deals — without accounting for inflation. That $420 airfare to England in 1960? It’s $3,330 in today’s dollars. You can buy a lot of T-bones for $2,900.
The reason you can get a $500 fare to Europe in 2015 is because all that $500 buys you is a seat – not a meal, not a luggage allowance, not in-flight entertainment, and not any more personal space than the absolute minimum. You’re lucky you’re getting the oxygen gratis.
Air travel has evolved from a service-oriented model to a price-driven one, and if you’re not getting the lowest possible price on your air travel you have only yourself to blame. There are more tools than ever available to help you find the lowest-priced flight from Point A to Point B, even if that turns out to be a one-stop to Point C where you throw away that silly last leg.
The tools range from the traditional, like a very good “12 Ways To Find Cheap Flights” article posted recently by the always-helpful Johnny Jet, to the high-tech cutting-edge.
We’ve already talked about Google Flights and how it’s a game-changer in the finding-cheap-flights game (even if Southwest, Frontier and some other airlines have deigned not to play). Google Flights now has some new competition: the Hopper app for iPhone and a site called Flyr.
Hopper and Flyr are what are known as “farecasting” services. As their name implies, farecasters not only show what the lowest rates are currently but where they’re apt to go, and when. Never again will you pay $1,100 to fly from Kansas City to Tucson just because you didn’t know the rates were being halved in another week.
Farecasting is tricky business, because it employs some highly sophisticated predictive modeling involving moving parts that don’t always move logically. For instance, if airfares increase when fuel prices go up, shouldn’t they fall when fuel prices fall? Au contraire, Eau Claire. They stay the same, so airlines can rebuild their profit margins and make their stockholders happy, since it’s better to have happy stockholders than happy customers. It’s behaviors like these that keep farecasters up nights.
We put Hopper and Flyr to the test – a very unscientific test against Google Flights on two very common flight types: a domestic flight from nowhere special to nowhere special, and an international flight to Paris, because it’s May and beautiful and we wish we were in Paris.
We also added a time factor to our test. We decided our domestic flight would leave Madison, Wis., for Baltimore June 1 and return June 8. We made the Paris flight more of a long-term proposition, leaving Madison Sept. 11 and returning Sept. 18. (We chose Madison because it doesn’t have a lot of nonstop flights, and we want ice cream from the Babcock Hall Dairy Store before we go.)
We first got our baseline prices from Google Flights. We remain a fan of Google Flights because it’s uncluttered and bone-simple to use, yet really powerful. Google Flights produced a low fare of $514 for the Madison flight and $1,309 to Paris, with the helpful suggestions that we could save big if we flew out of O’Hare or started our trip a day earlier.
Hopper is likewise easy, though its interface is completely different from Google Flights and more mobile-friendly. It specifies your home airport (not perfectly; for us it chose the 1.5-hours-away Madison instead of the half-hour-away Central Wisconsin) and then has you choose your destination and travel dates. From there, the animated rabbit hops, and away you go.
In the case of our Baltimore-Washington flight, Hopper was a fount of information. It told us that nonstop were available for about the same price as one-stops, and also told us that our $329 fare “isn’t a great price, but you will likely pay more if you wait.” If I wanted to wait, I could sign up for push notifications that would alert me when the price dropped.
Hopper’s database of international flights isn’t as robust as its domestic database, but it still was able to produce a Google-beating $1,176 fare, a fare it characterizes as “good.” However, Hopper wasn’t able to provide a prediction on the future of the $1,176 fare, and didn’t offer an explanation of what a better fare might be.
Flyr attempts to do Hopper one better by adding a quality-of-flight algorithm to the predictive model. Flyr assumes that non-stops are better than one-stops and one-hour layovers are better than five-hour layovers, so its builds that into its predictions.
The Flyr interface is sleek and futuristic, but it still asks for the same information as Google Flights and Hopper. Its spinning plane eventually produced an $1,176 fare to Paris, just like Hopper, as well as a $1,307 fare that cut seven hours off my travel time.
Hopper produced a lower fare than Flyr on the Baltimore flights – its $514 fare was the same as Google Flights – but Flyr provided the helpful advice that this fare was a “Strong Buy” that was “likely to go up by $43 within 24 hours.” That was an hour ago so I can’t vouch for the veracity of Flyr’s claims, but you know what I’ll be doing tomorrow.
The question with Hopper and Flyr is whether they provide enough extra functionality to make them a reasonable alternative to established players like Google Flights and Kayak (whose farecasting model is coming right along). I can see using Hopper a lot, because of its clean interface, mobile-friendly character, and combination of low fares and useful information.
At least for the time being, though, I plan on cross-checking its results with Google Flights and Flyr, especially on international flights. I like where Flyr’s heading with its combination of flight quality and price-predicting recommendations, and Google Flights is, well, Google Flights. With these three tools at my disposal I feel the lowest fare is always at my fingertips.
Southwest notwithstanding, of course.
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