Ask a Travel Nerd: Why Is Comparing Travel Prices Still So Hard?


Traveling means confronting dozens of problems that our seemingly advanced civilization should have solved by now.

Are those overhead bins really the best way to store carry-ons? Are lockboxes the safest way to transfer Airbnb keys? And do we still have to take off our shoes at U.S. airports in the interests of national security?

Yet one frustration is so persistent it has even caught the attention of the Biden administration: Comparing real prices between travel products remains nearly impossible. The buzzword surrounding this is called “junk fees,” yet the fees themselves are only part of the problem. The real issue is this: No third-party booking service has devised a way to compare the real price of a flight, hotel room or rental car to show you which one is actually the cheapest.

It makes sense that travel providers themselves are reluctant to disclose the total cost of their products. In 2023, airlines collected $117.9 billion in “ancillary fees” according to a report from CarTrawler and IdeaWorksCompany. That’s roughly the annual gross domestic product of Ecuador, according to World Bank estimates. Airlines aren’t about to give up an Ecuador’s worth of revenue to make your life easier.

What makes less sense is why third-party search engines like Google Flights, Expedia and Kayak haven’t solved this problem yet. They could display the total cost of a flight or other travel booking yet, for some reason, they don’t.

Not rocket science or even advanced aeronautics

When shopping for airfare, I want to know the total price given my preferences. These include:

For example, I might want to search flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco, given that I expect to bring one carry-on and one checked bag, and select an aisle seat. I also want to be able to cancel my ticket for a full refund and to earn full frequent flyer miles. Oh, and I’ll drink a Diet Coke in-flight.

But on most third-party search tools, I am presented with results that mean almost nothing. The lowest fare is usually offered by a budget airline that will tack on huge fees for everything listed above. For example, Frontier Airlines typically adds $157 in fees each way, according to a recent analysis by NerdWallet, while Alaska Airlines adds $30 each way. The exact number will depend on my preferences and which fees I’m willing to stomach.

(Frontier currently charges $4.39 for a Diet Coke, if you were curious).

This isn’t a difficult problem to solve. Surely Google has the engineering to customize its Google Flights search results. Yet it won’t even let you filter by basic economy fares, nevermind search for total prices, including add-on fees.

An enormous opportunity

Third-party booking platforms aren’t exactly small potatoes. The global online travel agency market was valued at $519.1 billion in 2021, according to a report by Grand View Research. That’s more than four Ecuadors.

If just one of these platforms could solve the price opacity problem, it would cause a seismic shift in the industry. Imagine if you could go somewhere that actually told you how much your flight, hotel and car rental were going to cost while you were searching, instead of after a lengthy checkout process.

The weirdest part of this problem is that greed can’t explain it all. Sure, travel platforms are incentivized to show the lowest price during shopping and tack on more fees later. But booking platforms’ interests should be aligned with us, the shoppers.

For example, when looking for rooms on Hotels.com, the search results page shows the “base” cost of the booking before add-ons like resort fees. Yes, it also displays the total cost, but it doesn’t let users filter or order results by this more meaningful result. If a hotel costs $100 yet adds a mandatory $50 resort fee, it will appear before a hotel that costs $125 with no resort fee when ordered by price. That’s ludicrous.

Nobody cares about the base price. It doesn’t mean anything. Why are we still seeing it in search results?

Here’s what to do (for now)

All the bellyaching in the world won’t make things better. So what can we budget-minded travelers do in a world of meaningless prices?

The best thing to do is determine which airlines and fare classes match your travel preferences. For example, if you travel light and don’t care about refunds, seat assignments or Diet Cokes, you’re probably fine using the base price listed on search pages like Google Flights’.

However, if you tend to travel with bags or care about these other features, you need to do a little homework. Compare the “total cost” of a fare given everything you would want to the “base fare” on the airlines you most often consider. The only way to do this is to follow through to checkout on several fares. You want to see what your own personal markup is for each airline. For example, maybe you add $80 each way when flying Spirit Airlines but only $20 on Delta Air Lines.

If you’re a nerd like me, you’ll create a spreadsheet with these markups for each airline. Then, when comparing prices on a search result page, you’ll want to add those markups to the base price. That way you can see the total cost (given your preferences) on each airline. And you won’t have to go through the entire checkout process each time you compare prices.

Does that sound like a pain? Well, it is. And until the big online travel booking platforms get their act together, it’s a pain we have to accept.

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