The Truth About Meta-Search Engines

Common Metasearch Engines in the Travel Business

In this installment of the Sir Trips-a-lot we take on the subject of meta-searchers. First, you probably are very familiar with various meta-searchers but are only vaguely familiar with what they do; how they work. So, prepare to be enlightened about a corner of the online travel market that gets way more attention than you probably would expect.

What are meta-searchers? The simplest explanation is to give you a list of the most popular ones in the travel industry: Skyscanner, Kayak, Momondo, Dohop, Hipmunk, Travel Zoo, and Trip Advisor. Chances are you have probably heard of one of theses sites, and the chances are good that many of you have actually used them; but what do they do, and are they really useful? The meta-searcher is an aggregator of fares from many different sources. Without getting into the complexities of explaining how fare prices are determined and why they vary so much from one provider to the next, the meta-searchers assemble a list of fares and display them in ascending order from the cheapest to the most expensive price based on the travel sites who pay to list with them. The meta-searcher “scrapes” the fares from many different pages constantly so that the fare information is continuously updated. Now, from what I have explained so far, it seems as if this is the best way to find the cheapest fares, but what you may not know is that not everyone who sells airfare online is listed with the meta-searchers, so it is not a completely representative sample of all the fares available; furthermore, you are also paying for this service and you do not even know it.

This technology has only been in existence for about fifteen years, and has only been made popular in the last five to seven years. As with all new technologies, it has its positive aspects and it has drawbacks as well. Many online travel sites, focusing mostly on flights, are clamoring to be listed on these meta-searchers because of the enormous volume they can drive to a particular site. The rankings in these meta-search results can be a tremendous advantage for a particular website if they can reach the top of the results or even the first page. The down-side of this arrangement is the hidden costs involved. While you as a customer might find a flight that is $10, or even $20 cheaper than the same fare on the airline’s own website, the reality is that you are paying at least $10 and probably more likely $20 dollars to the meta-searcher. Of course you do not know this because the website offering the fare has added the meta-searcher’s fee to the price of the fare. In reality, it is possible that you could find this flight for cheaper than it is listed with one of the meta-searchers, but you have to know where to look, and therein lies the rub. The meta-searcher is “easy” but you are paying for them to do the leg-work, and sometimes there are huge potholes on the tech-superhighway.

The worst problem with meta-searchers is that the information must be constantly updated, and it becomes a question of the periodicity of the scraping. How often the results are updated is critical because flight availability changes minute to minute. For example, the meta-searcher may scrape sites every fifteen minutes, or every five minutes. The negative result of this can be that flights are listed on the meta-searcher that are not actually available when you go to book them a mere five minutes later. This phenomena is incredibly irritating if you are a customer, because it smacks of false advertising, or that you have been conned into a bait-and-switch type situation. The reality is less sinister (in most cases), but still quite frustrating. The technology employed by the various meta-searchers attempts to attenuate this problem, but it is not possible to eliminate it completely.

What the meta-searchers do not want you to do is use their sites to find the cheapest price, and then to go to the website offering the fare and book it directly with them. The meta-searchers do not make any money in this case. In essence, if you have done this, you have outsmarted them and used their resources for free and then left them in the lurch. In fact, some travel website offer some fares very cheaply and list them on the meta-searchers hoping that you will go to their site to see the rest of their fares, or that you will go directly to their site the next time because you remember you got a cheap fare there the last time you booked a flight.

Selling airfare online has become a very cut-throat business in the last decade. The rise in popularity of meta-searchers has only accelerated this trend. In some cases this has led to manipulation of both fares and listings with the meta-searchers. I personally worked for a company that was selling published fares that were marked down, which is strictly verboten in the industry and they were eventually served with a cease and desist order from British Airways. Everyone is fighting to be listed as high as possible and some companies with less scruples will employ such tactics to entice you to buy with them. Programmers can write algorithms to undercut other prices by a few cents just to be listed higher in the results. Some sites will tack on rather exorbitant credit card processing fees, and even booking fees that are not included in the listed price because they are only required to list the fare and not their fees, thus increasing the price sometimes as much as $30 or $40. Be cognizant that price is the overriding factor in listings and that most people do not pay particular attention to anything else when buying flights. Certain airlines and websites know this and they offer extremely low priced flights but the flight times are really terrible or you may have a very long layover. Turkish Airlines is notorious for offering low fares where you leave Europe in the afternoon and then you have to spend the night in Istanbul before taking your onward flight the next day.

In the interest of being brief, I have tried to limit the amount of detail about some of the other unsavory aspects of dealing with meta-searchers. Working as a travel agent, you get to see how the system works from the other side and it can be more frustrating for the travel agent than the customer in some circumstances. The important point I have tried to make is that the customer should be aware that the meta-searcher is also a vehicle for profit and act accordingly. As always, the point of this blog is to give the flying public the best and most accurate information available so that they can make informed decisions about flying.

Our trip to Cuba

As the travel ban between the US and CUBA has been lifted, I assume many Americans will be finally making the journey to the country. In planning my trip, there are a few things you should know. I wanted to see as many cities from different areas of the country which would give me a well-rounded view: city, beach, and country experience. I also wanted to have the authentic “Cuban” experience and went with the “Casas”, which are accommodation in local’s homes, usually with separate bathrooms, homemade dinner, and breakfast and sometimes a small lunch.
The following choices were made: Varadero for 2 days (Beach), Havana for 2 days (City), Vinales for 2 days (Exotic Scenery), Cayo Levisa (Secluded Island), and Trinidad (Small City).
I found our Casa’s were found using “cuba-junky.com” and by using Trip Advisor. I advise these methods as you want a Casa well located with a great host.

Varadero
Varadero

Varadero is a peninsula of approx. 20km with a width of 1.2km at its widest point. It is well known for its resorts and beautiful beaches. I must say, that we were expecting to see a beach community filled with tourists, but it was a most pleasant experience. The beach was sandy, long, not overrun, and as we stayed at a casa at the beginning of the peninsula, we were not subject to an overly touristy experience.

Havana
Havana

Havana was very disappointing as this city is under full-tourist attack, not by tourists but by locals who see so many great opportunities to make some money. It was very hard for me to get around the city without being approached every 5 minutes or so. Keep in mind, I’m 6’1”, tall and have blonde hair. You might as well just hold up a sign that says “foreigner” so it was even worse for me. After sometime, one just does not want to answer where one is from, if we want a cigar, taxi, accommodation, or a restaurant recommendation. Don’t get me wrong, the people were nice, but there was a line of them always trying to make a cent. The highlight to Havana was Hotel Florida Salsa, great mood, great dancing, and a good Cuban experience, where you can dance with locals. The city itself is still stuck in the 1960’s as architecture, cars, and the economy has been on a stand-still since the revolution, this was great to see, but I recommend a simple day-trip.

The highlight of the trip was Vinales; a small city set out along a valley. The valley was beautiful and the scenery was amazing. The foliage was very exotic, where you can see mango trees, pineapple bushes, visit tobacco fields, see sugarcane, coffee, and even coco trees. We rode horses through the valley for 4 hours, which gave us a very local experience. The national park is a place where you should purchase your cigars as it is not possible to use chemicals in the valley as it is a national park and also a Unesco World Heritage site. This was one of the best places I have visited in my life.

Calley Pinar del Rio in Vinales
Calley Pinar del Rio in Vinales

I would skip Cayo Levisa completely if I were to re-do the trip. The hotel was over priced, it was touristy, the buffet was not tasty, and there was simply no culture to the island. Pretty views could be found when we took a hike away from the hotel where no-one else could be found, but it was not worth the extra money paid.

Cayo Levisa
Cayo Levisa

The last city was Trinidad; it was a small city with beautiful small houses and lots of Cuban culture. I would recommend this as a city to visit instead of Havana, the Cubans do approach you a lot, but with much less vigor as in Havana. It has many beautiful streets to wander around in and lots of shops to purchase your Cuban trinkets.

Trinidad in town
Trinidad in town

So, if you plan on visiting Cuba, I hope this helps!

An Explanation of Baggage Handling from the Airline’s Perspective: Why Luggage Gets Lost

A luggage handler a plane at Denver Airport
Luggage handler at the Denver Airport

In this edition of Sir-Trips-A-Lot we discuss how the baggage handling process works and what happens behind the scenes in the airport. Most people feel righteous anger when they are the victim of lost luggage, after all, the airline is supposed to transport you and your belongings together and that is what you have paid so much money to have done. Unfortunately, most customers don’t know what is necessary in order for that to happen. Believe me when I say that there are many pitfalls along the way that can and do happen occasionally, after all, airline companies employ people, and people make mistakes. This article should not be viewed as an apology for the airlines when they lose peoples’ bags, rather as an explanation of why it can happen.

Like most people, I did not have a clue what happens to my luggage after it leaves my sight at the check-in counter before it reappears at the baggage claim in my destination airport, but then I got a job at Continental Airlines at the Denver International Airport as a ramp service clerk, which is a nice way to say baggage handler. The job involves more than loading and unloading baggage, but baggage is the main priority. Once you do this job you get a feel for how complex a job it is to run an airline and how many things can go wrong in nearly every facet of operations. When you work on the “ramp” you see how connected all the different positions of the airlines are and how they work together. Gate agents, ramp agents, flight crews, dispatchers, fuelers, caterers, cleaners, all have specific tasks and all rely on the others to do their tasks in order to be successful.

So what happens when the plane comes to a complete and final stop at the gate? First, there are two kinds of flights for the ramp agents, the first is called a turn, which means the aircraft will be unloaded, serviced and reloaded with passengers and bags to fly somewhere else. The aircraft is literally being turned around to go out again. This is the most common type of flight during the day. The other types of flight is the terminators, and originators. These two are as their names suggest, the plane is done for the day, or the plane is the first plane to fly for the day. These flights are bit easier for the baggage handler because time constraints are not as much of an issue.

On a turn, once that aircraft stops moving, the baggage handlers are on a clock, which means they have a time limit to unload and reload the plane, the unloading time is dependent on the type of aircraft, for a Boeing-737 it would be approximately 12 -15 minutes. That means every bag, piece of cargo, and mail must be unloaded from the plane in that amount of time. From the time the plane stops at the gate, to the time the first bag comes up the baggage carousel is 17-18 minutes, and from the time the plane stops until the last bag comes up the carousel is usually 21-23 minutes. All these benchmarks are timed by the airlines. When on a turn, the plane is usually not on the ground for more than 1.5 hours. That means in that amount of time the plane will be unloaded, refueled, replenished with food and water, toilets emptied, and aircraft interior cleaned. In case you were not doing the math, in the above time line, that means the ramp agents must transport the bags from the plane to the baggage carousel in about 2- 4 minutes, and then unload all the bags in another 3-4 minutes so that all customers will have their bags within 23 minutes of landing. This does not always happen.

Transfer bags: where most lost bags occur. The transfer bags are always loaded first in the front compartment of the hold of the aircraft, and along with the first class passengers, are the first bags unloaded. A transfer bag is a bag that will not be placed on the carousel in the airport where the aircraft has landed, rather it will be transferred to another aircraft to reach its destination. You can see the possibilities for errors. If the “ramper” does not read the tag and throws the bag in with all the non-transfers, then your bag that was supposed to stopover in Chicago before being placed on the plane bound for Atlanta will instead spend a few hours at the missed transfer bin in the terminal at O’Hare. Besides transfers within the airline itself, there are also baggage transfers where the bag will be transferred to another airline because of codeshare agreements. This means the ramper will need to drop off transfers bags to be collected by the other airline’s baggage handlers and placed on their flights. This also means that if the other airline has already picked up transfers or failed to pick up transfers, then the bag will not reach its destination. It is quite common for a flight to be delayed and the transfer bags are also consequently delayed in reaching the transfer bins and thus do not make it on the intended flight; they must therefore be loaded on the next flight to that destination. The airlines call this delayed baggage. Your bag has not been lost, it is just going to get to you a few hours later than planned. In this case the airlines will try to accommodate you by delivering the bags to your hotel where you are staying instead of forcing you to go back to the airport to pick them up.

Sorting: not as mechanized as you think. You may have seen stories on the news or in magazines about how airports have automated their baggage sorting processes, but the truth of the matter is that there is still a great degree of reliance on people. When I worked at Denver International Airport, the sorting for Continental was co-located with Delta since Continental did not use Denver as a hub anymore. This meant that we had one carousel to sort all the bags for our flights, but because we were next to Delta we often got their bags on our carousel also. This may not seem like a big deal, but just a small error from the curbside check-in agent could result in your bag being sent on a Continental fight to Houston instead of its intended destination of JFK with Delta. On the baggage carousel underground, the handlers have a monitor which shows which flights are departing at what time and from which gate. The handler must assemble a train of carts which will be delivered to the waiting planes on the ramp. First class, business class and transfer bags will always be handled separately from the other bags because they are considered “priority bags”. No matter how automated the system is, it cannot account for tags that are unreadable because the tag is wrinkled or otherwise damaged. People have to check the tags manually and load the bags manually. In some cases there may be multiple flights scheduled to leave close to the same time and the sorters are throwing bags on the carts as fast as they can and they cannot keep up; at such times of stress mistakes often happen. Interestingly, the Denver International Airport did not open on-time due to its very complicated automated baggage handling system which never worked correctly and was eventually scrapped completely. The remnants of the system are still sitting there unused under the airport tarmacs.

Mechanical factors and the TSA. Another reason your bags could be delayed or lost has very little to do with the airlines and their personnel and more to do with your bag itself and where it might be going. Every bag that travels through a US airport is scanned for dangerous substances by the TSA. Every bag destined for international travel is screened an additional time. This is an automated process, but if the machine gets a hit, then you will get your bag back with a little sticker informing you the TSA has rummaged through its contents. Regardless of the reason for the machine rejecting the bag, it has to be searched and cleared by a person. If your bag is quarantined by the TSA, it is not going anywhere, and in serious cases, you will not be going anywhere either, because they can have you removed from the aircraft to question you about the contents of your bag. Another factor that people do not realize is in play is the many conveyor belts and slides that make up the sorting system for bags, and yes bags do get stuck quite often. This is a real headache for the airlines because sometimes one bag can cause a jam that disables the entire system. When this happens, you guessed it, a person has to come to clear the jam. The result is that sometimes other bags can stack up around the jam and even fall off the conveyor belt and not be noticed. It is also possible that your bags dimensions are actually too big for the system, and if the agent at the desk was not aware of that at the time they took your bag, then the likelihood of your bag getting stuck or causing a jam is also increased. Backpacks with hanging straps are notorious for getting stuck between the rollers of the conveyors in the baggage handling system and can cause major problems. When these jams occur they cause a ripple effect throughout the system resulting in more missed connections or delays.

We hope this blog has helped you understand the baggage handling process from the other side of the counter