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.