Deep Dive: "Flight Deal" Websites Part Two: International
Part Two: International flights
This is the second half of our deep dive into "flight deal" websites offering cheap airfares. Part One covered domestic flights; now, as we head into a season of Black Friday and holiday sales, we'll look at the extra perks and perils of booking international flights with third-party travel websites.
To recap: if you’re careful, these sites can save you money, but it’s easy to get in trouble if you don’t read the fine print. Like, “paid a whole bunch more but received less service” trouble, all the way up to “can’t fly, can’t get a refund, can’t even get a future credit” kind of trouble. Do the math and book thoughtfully!
Before we go any further - I don’t have a bone to pick with any one of these websites, but there's WAY too many of them to review one-by-one, so any feature I discuss here is something I've seen across multiple third-party travel-resale websites, and I'm just using the example to illustrate industry trends.
Any site used as an example in this article got picked solely because it was offering the cheapest flight I could find for my sample dates and routes.
Right. Let's get started!
As in the first half, my advice here all boils down to three basic ideas:
#1: If you see a good price on a third-party website, always check whether you can get the same price booking direct with the airline instead.
#2: If a third party is selling airfare for less than the actual airline charges, read the terms and conditions *really* carefully, and know what you’re getting. If it seems too good to be true, there’s probably a reason why.
#3: Consider how much you’d need to save, to make it worthwhile having to go through a third party if you need to change or rebook. This number will be different for each person, and the right answer is whichever one works best for you.
When we look at international flights, especially during the world of COVID, there's an extra layer of caution required, and I've watched this one wreck whole trips for careless travellers:
Most airlines and travel-sales websites are NOT responsible for confirming
you're allowed to fly to your destination before they sell you a ticket.
This can come up in several ways: for example, at the time of writing, I can easily book a ticket from m
Toronto to Taipei with a connection in Tokyo. Problem is, that flight lands at Tokyo Haneda, and departs from Tokyo Nartia; unless I'm a Japanese citizen, I probably can't enter Japan even to change airports.
Point is, when booking international travel, you've got to be especially careful about checking the details before you hand over your credit card, and many third-party travel websites don't make this super easy.
Let's get into some examples! Looking at a return trip from New York to Dubai, we’ll see one way to potentially save a lot of money by taking on a truly painful routing, and another way to save a bit of money on exactly the same flights we’d get by booking direct.
Example: New York-Dubai round-trip
$854 direct, $780-809 with third-party websites
Option One – Booking Direct – Turkish Airlines, One Stop, $854
First, let’s set our baseline by booking direct: the best economy fare on our sample dates is $859.82 CAD with Turkish Airlines, flying Newark-Istanbul-Dubai-Istanbul-JFK with reasonably short layovers in at Istanbul Airport in each direction. They remind you to check their baggage rules before you book, but even the least-expensive “promotional” economy fare includes two checked bags per passenger.
$854 round-trip, bags included, is a pretty good price, but let's see if we can find something better!
Option Two – Not Quite As Cheap, But More Predictable – FareScan.com, $809
This one gets interesting. If you look closely, you’ll see that in this example, FareScan is offering exactly the same flights we’d get if booking direct from Turkish Airlines – including the two free checked bags – for $45 less than Turkish is charging. How can that be possible, you might reasonably ask?
If we dig into the pricing details, we see that FareScan is charging exactly the same fuel surcharges, taxes and airport fees as Turkish Airlines, but simply a lower base fare. This could simply be a question of FareScan negotiating a bulk-buy price with Turkish, banking on their ability to sell the tickets in time. Another possibility is that they’ve bought a separate fare type directly from Turkish that won’t include things like frequent-flyer miles, and if that’s the only difference, that’s pretty reasonable.
There’s one other key difference, though, as we scroll down the FareScan page – they’re pretty open about the fact that they’re offering much better customer service to people who buy their “Elite” service package, which just so happens to eat up all the money you saved compared to just buying direct from Turkish in the first place.
If any travel company lists its free customer-service option as “standard” and the one I pay forty bucks extra for as “fastest”, I’m willing to bet that the free option involves spending several hours on hold.
Still, if you just want to book a simple itinerary and fly it, one connection on a single ticket isn't terribly complicated, and if the worst that happens is you need to sit on hold for a few hours, that's not the end of the world, so for some people this will be a solid example of how to save some money on the same flights you'd get by booking direct!
...but if we *really* want to get things cheaper, we'll need to get a little more extreme in our quest to save!
Option Three - Cheapest Possible Option – Kiwi.com, Five Stops, $780
Next, we see a third-party website – in this case, Kiwi - offering a considerably cheaper option at $780, but this is a very different set of flights.
Instead of the 15h40 Turkish Airlines routing with a stop in Istanbul, to get that $780 fare from Kiwi we’re looking at seven flights on six separate airlines, with stops in Chicago, Barcelona and a 20-hour overnight stop in Bucharest, as well as a 3 AM departure from Dubai on the way home. You'll lose out on a whole day in Dubai, compared to flying the more-direct routing, but if you don't mind the extra flying time you can probably get the same price to leave a day earlier or stay a day longer.
That’s pretty rough, but when you get into the details it gets *much* worse, and some of the ugliest parts aren’t immediately obvious.
Booking Turkish Airlines directly, or the same Turkish flights through a third party, you’ll make one connection at Istanbul each way, you’ll stay inside security and never need to clear Customs for Turkey, and Turkish will check your bags straight through to Dubai.
On the seven-airline extravaganza with Kiwi, you’ll be doing what’s called a “self-transfer” at Barcelona, Bucharest and Paris, which is airline terminology for “you’re booked on several separate, unrelated tickets with different airlines that don’t communicate with each other”.
You’ll need to clear customs in Barcelona, as well as retrieving and re-checking your bags in both Barcelona and Bucharest on the way out, and clear French/Schengen customs and re-check your bags again in Paris on the way home. Annoying, but not the end of the world.
Why is this so complicated? Basically, Kiwi’s taking advantage of the fact that a flight from New York to Paris might be really cheap compared to a flight from New York to Dubai, and then they’re filling in the gaps with the cheapest “low cost carrier” airlines they can find.
Separately-ticketed flights should be a huge red flag.
If you buy a round-trip with every flight on the same ticket, and one of your flights is late enough that you miss a connection, the airline is usually responsible for rebooking you to your destination at their cost.
On a self-transfer routing, however, if your inbound flight from Chicago is late, and you miss your connection onto your Barcelona-Bucharest flight, you may find Blue Air simply declares you a no-show and voids your ticket with them, no rebooking, no refund, or charges a substantial last-minute rebooking fee. Low-cost carriers especially love to do this, pointing to terms and conditions you were likely never shown in detail by your booking site, or were only shown buried in pages of fine print.
If you click far enough into Kiwi’s terms and conditions, you’ll see a vague reference to “we combine separate flights to offer you better deals” without detailing what’s actually involved.
In fact, travel sites know this involves some risk, and they want to profit from it. For example, in this case Kiwi.com offers you their “Guarantee” to “protect all transfers”, but they aren’t terribly clear what this offers, nor that this “guarantee” only applies if you go out of your way to sign up – and pay extra – for the separate service that provides this coverage.
This service costs an additional $195.
This is in addition to the separate $14.34 service Kiwi offers for “premium services”, in which they very clearly explain that if you DON’T pay this fee, you will wait on hold for longer when you call their customer service, AND they’ll charge an additional 10 Euros (equal to – wait for it - $14.34) if you call in to do something crazy like select seats or add checked bags.
Speaking of adding checked bags, our direct-booked flights include two free checked bags per person; on our sample 7-airline “cheaper” ticket, however, just one checked bag will cost you an additional $411.67 in fees, since each of the 7 airlines involved will apply its own baggage rules. Actually, I’m not entirely sure about the carry-on part either; it wasn’t clear whether that would carry an extra fee on Wizz or Blue as well.
You're also going to need to be okay with a middle seat on these flights. While all our options here involve fares that will charge extra for advance seat selection, the routing with 7 flights is going to charge you on each one, and the extra costs for the 3 additional flights would chew through almost all the money you saved against booking more-direct flights in the first place!
...but then again, even Kiwi 'recommends' that you book a more-expensive fare plan, that includes extra flexibility and their "we won't put you on hold for quite as long" customer-service package. Though, note that this one still doesn't include connection protection or checked bags, both of which Turkish threw in for free on their "more expensive" fare.
Once We Do The Math, “Cheaper” Can Actually Mean “Way More Expensive”.
Depending on which ‘optional extras’ you choose, if you want such luxuries as “not getting stranded in Europe with no plane ticket because there was bad weather in Chicago”, your $780 Kiwi ticket to Dubai will end up costing $1,000 or more. If you want more than a day-bag full of clothes, you’re looking at over $1,400, which is pretty rough when the airline would have just given you all those things included in the original $853.
There's Got To Be A Better Way, Right?
There does - and there is. While I advise most people to book direct, you can absolutely use search engines like Kayak - or my personal preference, Google Flights - to scan through multiple airlines quickly.
Both contain powerful filters you can use to shape your search to your preferences - here are just a few of the useful things you can filter in or out:
don't show any routing that takes more than X hours start to finish
don't show connections through [the following airports]
only show options departing after 5PM
only show prices that include at least a carry-on bag
only show direct flights
For example, here's a sample Google Flights search for a flight from Albuquerque to Ouagadougou, including carry-on, departing after 1PM, avoiding connections in New York.
You can also use these engines to play around with dates; you might find your flight is cheaper on Thursdays, or if you stay for more than a week.
Google Flights is also really good about clearly identifying when a routing involves separate or self-transfer tickets, airport changes, etc.
Note that you won't buy your ticket FROM Google, they'll simply offer you a bunch of links to different third-party airfare sites, and/or to book direct with the airline.
With thousands of possible flight routes, it’s impossible to pick even a dozen examples that would cover all possible outcomes, but I’ve been thinking about writing this article for months, and trying to keep it from turning into a long novel.
I chose that Dubai trip as an example because it covers several of the possible pitfalls of booking with a third-party website. Each site will have its own unique details, but the lesson here is about the process of booking carefully.
In my personal opinion, Kiwi is one of the worst offenders for several of these practices, and they’ve certainly been the one site I’ve heard the most passenger complaints about during the last year, but they’re simply one example; you need to be careful to check all the details before booking airfare with *any* third-party website.
That said, in Kiwi's defence, they're not the only site out there selling needlessly-complicated, multi-layered nested tickets, and they also do offer more-reasonable routings like the one I listed above from Farescan. Anecdotally, I do hear more customer complaints about Kiwi than any other third-party site, almost all from customers frustrated with the (lack of) support when rebooking COVID-cancelled flights.
To be clear, I don’t think any of these third-party websites are being intentionally deceptive or fraudulent, they’re just building you a very complicated set of disconnected tickets, which even a *very* experienced international traveller should book cautiously if at all, and then they're not working very hard to make sure you’ve understood what you’re getting.
These sites do offer legitimate value for a person who’s completely comfortable sitting in a middle seat, travelling with no checked bags, and potentially spending the night sleeping on the floor of an airport now and then. This isn’t me being snarky, that type of traveller absolutely exists, and nearly every airline on Earth has issued some form of “Basic Economy” fare type to accommodate them.
As always - read the fine print, do the math, and book carefully. Once that's done - have fun!