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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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