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Many travellers find the sheer volume of online booking tools to be overwhelming. So this is the second in a month-long series that highlights a handful of websites that will change the travel game in 2013. Last week’s post was on GetGoing.

Unique premise
Some people are obsessed with mastering the art of booking affordable plane tickets, from squeezing the maximum redemption value out of frequent flyer miles to sussing out hidden discounts for those travelling with an infant, pet or large musical instrument. And because they view buying plane tickets as a challenge, this mix of frequent flyers, travel agents and amateurs are often well informed about the ins and outs of booking long-haul flights or complicated itineraries.

Flightfox, a year-old start-up with offices in Australia and the US, aims to let you tap into this vast pool of knowledge by challenging about 2,000 of these so-called “travel experts” to research on your behalf and save you a planeload of money.

Punch in your travel dates and destination and describe your ideal flight, such as economy-class seats without red-eye departures, and then pay a “finder's fee” that’s proportional to the complexity of the trip and the number of experts who research it (fees usually range from between $29 and $49 for a straightforward search).

Then these travel experts compete to find you the best price and win the finder’s fee (or more precisely, 75% of the fee – as the rest goes to operate the website). So far, the company has paid the experts more than $250,000.

Contest lengths vary – mostly between 12 hours to two days – though Flightfox may extend a contest if a request is especially complex, such as finding out how to cheaply fly three cats one-way internationally. A customer is typically presented with results from a few experts and he or she gets to name the “winner” based on whichever ticket works the best for them – which means the winning entry doesn’t necessarily have to be the cheapest ticket. Customers are not required to book, but the fee is only refundable if you can prove you’ve found a lower price on your own.

The start-up and its pool of experts aren’t paid commissions by any particular companies, so their suggested trips aren’t biased. The finder’s fee is also fixed in advance and not based on a percentage of the total ticket price, which avoids creating an incentive to upsell you on a costlier product.

Test case
In March, I tapped Flightfox’s help in booking a hypothetical round-trip May flight between Sydney and Geneva. I gave the experts 12 hours for the contest, and said I was willing to have, at most, a 48-hour stopover between cities if the total price was significantly less than $1,400 – the lowest fare I had been able to find myself. While I could have opted for a $29 fee, I paid $39 as a sweeter pot in the hopes of luring a greater number of more advanced competitors to my bid.

In this case, the lowest price was $1,169, or about 16% lower than what I could find on my own, flying on Scoot, Finnair and Flybe airlines and including reasonably short layovers between one and four hours – except for a single nine-and-a-half hour stay in Singapore on the return leg. For slightly more money, $1,240, I could fly on better-known Qantas instead of Scoot on what was otherwise essentially the same itinerary.

Pleased at all of the answers, I named the cheapest price the winner and received instant access to the booking instructions, which involved reserving directly on the Finnair and Scoot websites – something I hadn’t known to do to find the lowest prices. If I had problems in making the booking within 24 hours, I could have messaged with the expert privately or switched the award to another flight.

Flaws that need fixing
Flightfox is best for travellers booking either expensive tickets (because there’s a greater chance that experts can find enough savings to justify the finder’s fee) or complicated itineraries, such as ones involving mile redemption or multiple destinations. But the site doesn’t make that clear to first-time users, so consumers may be tempted to make requests on simple tickets and thus be disappointed in the results. You pay the finder’s fee up-front, even if it turns out to be more than what the experts can save you on the ticket.

Flightfox also said that it vets potential experts by asking for examples of their fare-hunting skills. But in any given contest, it’s luck-of-the-draw which experts will be answering your request. Will the ones you get be feeling particularly ambitious on the day of your contest? Will they be particularly knowledgeable about the type of itinerary you’re trying to book? Quality control may vary, so you’re still advised to cross check their results with your own sleuthing.

Lastly, as noted earlier, the start-up doesn’t book the tickets for you. This means you’ll have to be ready to pounce on any offer the experts dig up the moment they notify you by email, because deals can vanish as quickly as they appear.

Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel

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