Which online travel agent (OTA) is the cheapest? Is there any difference in fares between agents such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz or do they all pull the same results from Global Distribution Systems. Below we will test out 5 of the main OTAs in a random series of flights worldwide.
Now in the past we have always maintained that you should try to get multiple quotations from different airlines and online travel agents in the search to find the cheapest airfare. Is this still the case?
In the US, many people naturally turn to the ‘big 3’ online travel agents – Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz – to make flight searches. In fact these 3 all belong to the very same company (Expedia Inc) after recent consolidation in the industry.
The main 2 players are currently:
Expedia – owns Travelocity, Orbitz, CheapTickets, Hotwire and eBookers.
Priceline – owns Kayak, Booking.com and Agoda.
On top of this you have:
CheapoAir – a large independent flight booking agent.
Tripadvisor – has built up a large portfolio of small sites concentrated mainly around the hotels and restaurant review business. Also has a flight booking engine and owns Seatguru, the flight seat review site.
Google – has become a player having invested in ITA Software and has a Google Flights search engine.
Expedia vs Orbitz vs Travelocity vs Priceline vs Cheapoair Test
Let’s test out the online agents to see who comes back with the lowest economy class return fare (4 weeks out) for various city pairs around the world. We are just looking for the very cheapest airfare and will not worry about the best airline or the optimal connections.
This test was made in June 2015 and we quote prices obtained at the same moment from Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline and Cheapoair.
Boston (BOS) – San Francisco (SFO)
Expedia: $453 (Sun Country Airlines via Minneapolis)
Orbitz: $450 (American/United)
Travelocity: $453 (Sun Country Airlines via Minneapolis)
Priceline: $469 (United)
Cheapoair: $421 (Sun Country/Virgin America)
Notes: Cheapoair comes back with the lowest fare, $48 cheaper than Priceline. Cheapoair and Orbitz are good at finding airfares with different airline combinations. Cheapoair is also very good at suggesting flexible alternatives – such as a slightly cheaper fare ($417) to nearby San Jose airport.
Austin (AUS) – New York (LGA)
Expedia: $265 (Virgin America)
Orbitz: $265 (Virgin America)
Travelocity: $265 (Virgin America)
Priceline: $265 (Virgin America)
Cheapoair: $265 (Virgin America)
Notes: On a route with limited competition, Virgin America came back as cheapest with the same price quoted on all agents.
Los Angeles (LAX) – Sydney (SYD)
Expedia: $1,536 (Philippine Airlines via Manila)
Orbitz: $1,558 (Air NZ via Auckland)
Travelocity: $1,560 (Air NZ via Auckland)
Priceline: $1,560 (Air NZ via Auckland)
Cheapoair: $1,536 (Philippine Airlines via Manila)
Notes: Expedia and Cheapoair quoted the lowest fare with Philippines Airlines. Note that Orbitz had a slightly lower Air NZ fare than Priceline and Travelocity.
Chicago (ORD) – Frankfurt (FRA)
Expedia: $1,341 (Air Berlin via Berlin)
Orbitz: $1,196 (Jet Blue/Singapore Airlines via New York)
Travelocity: $1,341 (Air Berlin via Berlin)
Priceline: $1,323 (Air Berlin via Berlin)
Cheapoair: $1,179 (Jet Blue/Singapore Airlines via New York)
Notes: Once again Cheapoair and Orbitz return an interesting airline combo – in this case JetBlue and Singapore Airlines which is $162 cheaper than Expedia/Travelocity.
Toronto (YYZ) – Santiago (SCL)
Expedia: $663 (American)
Orbitz: $663 (American)
Travelocity: $663 (American)
Priceline: $663 (American)
Cheapoair: $661 (American)
Notes: Cheapoair comes back a couple of dollars cheaper than the rest for the same flights.
London Heathrow (LHR) – Dubai (DXB)
Expedia: $555 (Swiss)
Orbitz: $589 (Swiss)
Travelocity: $556 (Swiss)
Priceline: $555 (Swiss)
Cheapoair: $543 (Swiss)
Notes: Again, Cheapoair comes back cheapest for the same flights, some $46 cheaper than Orbitz.
Amsterdam (AMS) – Cape Town (CPT)
Expedia: $1,113 (Etihad)
Orbitz: $1,090 (KLM/South African)
Travelocity: $1,113 (Etihad)
Priceline: $1,097 (KLM/South African)
Cheapoair: $1,116 (Etihad)
Notes: This time it is Orbitz which is the cheapest with the KLM/South African combo fare; Cheapoair is the most expensive.
Bangkok (BKK) – Hong Kong (HKG)
Expedia: $229 (Hong Kong Airlines)
Orbitz: $229 (Hong Kong Airlines)
Travelocity: $229 (Hong Kong Airlines)
Priceline: $229 (Hong Kong Airlines)
Cheapoair: $232 (Hong Kong Airlines)
Notes: Hong Kong Airlines has the cheapest fare, note Cheapoair was $3 more expensive than the others.
Singapore (SIN) – Melbourne (MEL)
Expedia: $730 (Emirates operated by Qantas via Perth)
Orbitz: $668 (Emirates non-stop)
Travelocity: $730 (Emirates operated by Qantas via Perth)
Priceline: $678 (Emirates operated by Qantas via Perth)
Cheapoair: $691 (Air Asia via Kuala Lumpur)
Notes: Only Orbitz quoted the non-stop Emirates flight which was cheapest. Cheapoair alerted us to a cheaper flight ($600) with Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur departing the day earlier.
The conclusion taken from the above 9 flight searches (a limited data set really) is that there still remains some variation in airfare quotations amongst the main online travel agents. Our original assertion to get multiple quotes from different sources still stands – this means also checking directly with the airlines as well.
For fun let’s take a look at some head-to-head results from the above test.
Expedia 2:0 Travelocity
Expedia 2:4 Orbitz
Expedia 2:3 Priceline
Expedia 2:5 Cheapoair
Orbitz 3:5 Cheapoair
Orbitz 5:1 Travelocity
Orbitz 5:1 Priceline
Priceline 3:5 Cheapoair
Now let’s look at the sum of all airfares together:
In this informal test we can probably say that Cheapoair and Orbitz are the winners.