Being My Own Travel Agent With Kayak

[fr] En mars, je vais en Irlande, puis à Austin (Texas), puis à San Francisco. Ça fait pas mal de vols à organiser. L'agence de voyage que j'ai contactée me propose un circuit à CHF 2800. En utilisant Kayak, j'arrive (non sans mal, sueur, et heures investies) à faire le tour pour CHF 1650.

Cet article est le récit de la façon dont j'ai procédé.

I have some serious travel planned for March.

First, I go to Cork, Ireland, for Blogtalk and the preceding WebCamp on Social Network Portability, from 2nd to 4th.

Then, I head for Austin, Texas for SXSW Interactive, from 7th-11th.

I’ll be speaking in both places.

As I’m in the States, I’ll then head out to spend two weeks or so in San Francisco. Here are what my travel dates and destinations look like:

  • 1st: GVA-ORK (ORK is Cork, yes, funny)
  • 6th: ORK-AUS
  • 12th: AUS-SFO
  • 25th: SFO-GVA

I chose the 25th to go back because it seems to be the cheapest day around there. The other dates are fixed by hotel or event constraints.

After fooling around with Kayak.com for a fair number of hours, and finding it a little confusing (I’ll detail below in what way), I caved in and called a travel agent in Lausanne to ask them to sort it out for them.

They got back to me, speedily and kindly, but with a surprising price tag: 2800 CHF for the whole thing. That’s $2400 for those of you who like dollars.

Now, even though I wasn’t very happy with what I came up on Kayak, I had figured out that this trip would cost me around about 1200$. Not the double.

So, back to Kayak. In the process, I’m starting to get the hang of how to do searches for long, nasty, complicated journeys, so I thought I’d share it with you.

A side issue before I start, though: flights to and from the USA have a much more generous luggage allowance than flights elsewhere (20kg + cabin luggage). If the first leg of a journey to the USA is inside Europe, though, you still get the “US” luggage allowance for that flight. I was hoping I could make things work out to have the more generous luggage allowance for the GVA-ORK part of my trip too, as I tend to have trouble travelling light (particularly for 3 weeks). But it seems that won’t happen.

As I understand it from the kind explanations a few people have given me, the GVA-ORK part of my journey is considered a completely separate one from ORK-AUS, AUS-SFO, and then SFO-GVA. In short, I’m dealing with four separate flights.

So, let’s do the obvious thing first, and ask Kayak.com to do all the work. My dates are fixed, but I’m open to the idea of using nearby airports. This is what I gave Kayak.com:

Kayak search: GVA-ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA

And here is what I got:

Kayak.com GVA-ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA

Oops. It seems Geneva dropped off the map. If I select the “neighbouring” airport LYS (Lyon), I get this. Slightly more encouraging, but…

Kayak.com: GVA-ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA

…slightly expensive. Roughly what my travel agent told me, actually. Gosh, I wonder which part of the journey is costing so much? Let’s try and break things down.

First, GVA-ORK:

Kayak.com GVA - ORK

Wow, is that their best price? $384 and 9 hours of travel to go from Switzerland to Ireland? I should be able to find something better. So, I hunted around a bit on my own. I know I can get to London for around $100 or less with easyJet, so what about the other low-costs? From the Cork airport site, I got a list of airlines flying there. Then I went to individual airline sites — I’ll pass you the details, save to say that RyanAir has got some “virtually free” flights (1 penny + taxes) but as they only allow 15kg of check-in luggage (I can make sacrifices and try to stick to 20, but 15 is really low), flight + excess luggage fee actually comes down to not-that-cheap.

Oh, wait a sec! Let’s enlist Kayak’s help for this. Here are GVA-LON flights, according to Kayak:

Kayak.com GVA - LON

That’s helpful, actually. I wouldn’t have thought to check BA. The flight is way too early, though. And Kayak.com now gives results with European low-cost airlines — I don’t recall it did this early December when I first tried.

What about LON-ORK?

Kayak.com LON - ORK

I removed RyanAir from the results (they were the cheapest, around $48 — plus extra luggage tax!), and the winner is… Aer Lingus!

So, if I manage to get the timings right, and accept that I’ll have to pick up my luggage and check in again in London, I should be able to get a better deal than the $384 Kayak suggested “out of the box”.

Oh, another idea. Let’s tell Kayak I’m flying through London, and see what happens. Here are the results for GVA-LON-ORK:

Kayak.com GVA - LON - ORK

Still no luck. The first flight is the same as the one I got when I asked for GVA-ORK. Clearly, Kayak introduces constraints (like… airlines must be working together) when asked for a trip. That probably explains why my total trip seems so horrendously expensive.

Right, now we’ve dealt (more or less — at least there seems to be hope) with the first part of the journey, let’s look at the rest.

ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA:

ORK-AUS: $509

Kayak.com ORK - AUS

AUS-SFO: $125

Kayak.com AUS - SFO

SFO-GVA: $530

Adding all that up, we’re quite far from the $2400 my travel agent or Kayak suggest for the whole flight.

Now, let’s dig in a little further. How about I ask Kayak for ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA? I’ve already identified that the GVA-ORK part was problematic, so maybe… maybe:

Kayak.com ORK - AUS - SFO - GVA

$1029! And all with American Airlines! That sounds nice. Add to that a bit less than $200 for the GVA-ORK bit, and I should manage to do all this flying for roughly $1200. Much more reasonable (though still a big hole in my bank account credit card, given the sad state of my finances these days).

So, ready for the details? Because, no, in case you were wondering, the fun doesn’t stop here. Sick around, there’s still work to do.

First, GVA-LON-ORK.

London has a problem: it has too many airports. Aer Lingus fly out of LHR to Cork, so ideally, I should plan to arrive there. I don’t think I want to go through the fun of commuting from one airport to another if I can avoid it.

That unfortunately rules out easyJet, who don’t fly to LHR. They fly to LGW, Luton, Stansted, but not LHR. So, let’s check out BA, who were actually cheaper (though at an ungodly hour, and for LGW).

BA: GVA-LHR

Right, so for 144 CHF, I get to fly out around 10am, which is actually quite nice. I land around 11am. Let’s look at Aer Lingus flights to ORK, then:

Aer Lingus: LHR-ORK

I’m very tempted to take the 14:05 flight instead of the 18:05 one, but. That would leave me with only 3 hours in LHR to get my luggage, go from terminal 1 to terminal 4, and check in again. The London crew on Twitter tells me it’s a little tight, though others seem to think it’s OK.

So, well, that would be it for the first part of the journey.

Now for the rest.

Then, ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA.

Here are the details I get from Kayak for this multi-city journey:

Kayak.com ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA 1029$

As you can see, American Airlines seem to like Chicago airport, ORD. Dennis Howlett warns me against going through that airport, but it seems the other options are going to cost me an extra $1000.

But that’s not all. What exactly are the “layovers” here? I’d assume they are plane changes. But 55 minutes in Chicago and 1h35 in Brussels on my way back don’t really seem to allow time for that. Chances are I’d miss the connection — but then why would Kayak.com (and AA!) suggest this kind of combination?

It’s not the end of the world if I get home a day late, so I guess that for $1000, I’ll take my chances.

Let’s not stop there, though, shall we? I decided to dig a bit deeper into all this. See, for example, I tried asking Kayak.com about:

AUS-SFO-GVA: $1669

Kayak.com AUS - SFO - GVA

Why isn’t Kayak coming up with one of the (obviously cheaper) combinations for the SFO-GVA leg? Why is BA suddenly the cheapest option? I don’t get it.

See, for example, this flight option for SFO-GVA, $550, is much more exciting than the AA one via ORD and Brussels:

Kayak.com: SFO-GVA

Just one change in Newark. And it’s a shorter overall flight, too.

That means I need to get the ORK-AUS-SFO part separate. Let’s look at it now:

Kayak.com ORK-AUS-SFO

The cheapest deal is $624 with AA and Frontier, which is an immediate (and logical! what a surprise!) combination of the two cheapest deals for ORK-AUS and AUS-SFO taken separately. I don’t seem to gain anything (financially) by booking them together.

Now, the problem here is that the flight times are really long (20h). I’m quite tempted to force my journey through some European city other than London and see what happens.

A quick trip to the Austin airport site seems to say there are no direct flights there outside the US. I can’t find that kind of information for DFW, unfortunately. I’m keeping an eye on DFW because I could land there and take a road trip to Austin with a friend. It’s 3.5 hours on the road, though, so I need a flight that lands early enough.

For example, let’s take Dublin, as I’m already in Ireland.

Here are Kayak flights from DUB to AUS: most interesting deal $484 with Delta for a 19h flight:

Kayak.com: DUB-AUS

Come to think of it, you know what I’d like? I’d like to be able to place all the flights on a chart, with for example “price” on the x-axis and “total flight duration” on the y-axis. I’d be willing to pay $50 extra or so to cut of a certain number of hours of travel, but as of now there is no way to visualise this kind of thing easily. The “Matrix” tab in Kayak has a promising name, but all it does is give best price and number of stops per airline. Not very exciting.

What about ORK-DUB? Well, the fine folks at Blogtalk recommend Aer Arann (they have a great “travelling” page, btw, I’ll have to take example on them for Going Solo:

Aer Arann: ORK-DUB

Cheap flight, $36. What would Kayak say?

Kayak.com: ORK-DUB

Well, RyanAir is cheaper but I don’t want them, and the Aer Arann flights are there, but a bit more expensive than what I found. Hidden costs, maybe? Or maybe just an update glitch — I’m aware it’s difficult to keep everything perfectly in sync.

Gah. This is turning into another nasty headache.

Let’s go back to letting Kayak take care of ORK-AUS-SFO. I had a look at flights from Shannon, but the price difference is not worth the couple of hours by bus to get there. I also considered SAT (San Antonio) but it’s really out of Austin, so not interesting. I’m willing to fly in another airport than SFO though.

Sidenote: this is where I discover I can “favorite” flights in Kayak. I should have started doing that hours ago. So, here’s the flight I’m favoriting for the ORK-AUS segment. I don’t want to land at 12:15am in Austin, so the choice is easy to make. Will have to get up early in Cork, though. Ugh.

Kayak.com: ORK-AUS favorite

You know what would be really cool? If I search for ORK-AUS-SFO, I’d like Kayak to let me know which flight combinations contain that flight I’ve favorited. I wonder if it does that. Let’s see! But before that, I’ll go and favorite the flight I want for heading over to San Francisco. So, here is what Kayak gave me for that segment, remember?

Kayak.com AUS - SFO

The cheapest flight is $125, but if you have a close look, you’ll see that all these are either dreadfully early, or quite late. I’d rather leave sometime later in the morning. Luckily, Kayak provides a “filter” that allows me to select that. (Remember, earlier on, I was wondering why Kayak was suggesting routes with 55min stopovers? Well, there’s a “stopover length” filter too that I could have used to avoid that.) Here’s what happens if I decide to leave between 8 and 10am:

Kayak.com: AUS-SFO Flight Time filter

For roughly $200, I get to sleep a bit more. This is another case where the price/something-or-other graph would come in handy: it would help me visualise how much I have to pay to leave later. (I’m learning to factor in cab fares and stuff like that when making flight decisions.)

So, back to our combined ORK-AUS-SFO trip:

Kayak.com: ORK-AUS-SFO best choice

By playing with the time sliders for flights 1 and 2, I managed to filter out the flights that didn’t contain my two favourites (at no surprise, Kayak doesn’t tell me that this “multiple flight” actually contains a single flight that I favourited… too bad). Result: $695 and decent flying times.

So, let’s recap. (I’m going to be doing the actual booking tomorrow, it’s getting late and I’m tired, which is usually a recipe for mistakes. Also, the prices the airlines and Kayak give could be slightly different, so this is an approximation.)

GVA-LHR: BA, $125 LHR-ORK: Aer Lingus, $60

That’s $185 for me to go to Cork.

ORK-AUS-SFO: AA and Frontier, $695

SFO-GVA: United and Qatar, $550

Total: $1430 = 1650CHF

That’s a bit more than what it seemed I’d get away with at first, but there are less stopovers and the flying times are nicer than the cheapest deal. That’s worth a couple hundred $.

So, thanks Kayak. That’s more than 1000CHF less than my travel agent came up with. But God, did I have to work hard for it. There is definitely room for improvement in the business of helping people sort out their travels.

While I was writing this post and twittering about my trials, Bill O’Donnel (find him on Twitter, he’s the Chief Architect at Kayak!) sent me a message saying he wanted to read my post when I was done. He also added that he was forwarding my twitters to the UI team. So, guys, hope you enjoy the free experiential marketing! In a way, only — it’s not really an experiential marketing campaign because nobody asked me to do anything, but this is typically the kind of stuff I would write up in such a campaign, and an example of authentic user behaviour that experiential marketing “re-creates”.

So anyway, hope you enjoy this tale of user experience. And I also hope my fellow travellers will find useful input here to help them sort out their travels.

Thanks to everybody who answered or simply put up with my numerous questions and tweets during the process of sorting out this trip.

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This entry was posted in Being the boss, Travels and tagged airlines, blogtalk, blogtalk 2008, Events, feedback, flying, freelancing, kayak, organisation, review, Reviews, Software and Tools, sxsw, testimonial, travel agent, Travels, user experience, Website Reviews, Comments, and Linkage. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Being My Own Travel Agent With Kayak

  1. Steph: The triumph of persistance over travel agents. You’re really emphasiizing something many of us already know – multi-city travel planning is far from optimized. Kayak did a great job IMO albeit I come up with the same limitations from time to time. It’s often a case of ‘know how’ and experience.

    Bravo and good luck.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thanks, Dennis. I guess some more “general” tips I’d give are:

    • break it up and look at the individual segments
    • try different combinations of segments to see if it gets cheaper
    • if you suspect you should fly through a particular city the trip planner isn’t suggesting, break your segment in two parts
    • check the airline sites directly for better deals or other flights

    Gosh, I didn’t think I’d spend all afternoon and half my evening planning this trip and writing a blog post. And I still haven’t actually booked the flights.

  3. shel israel says:

    Thanks for this exhaustive report and thanks to Dennis who used Twitter to point me to it. I have to minor twists that I you might factor in: (1) How many hours did this take? How much per hour do you bill your time? From tjat perspective what did you save? (2) My primary carrier is United/Star Alliance. I have no love for them but I have enough miles to upgrade whenever I want, which is always for trips from California to Europe. If I need to make a change after booking with a third party, United essntially tlls me that because I used a “discount service” I am not going to get the priveliges I get as a 50K year flier. In short, they will treat me only slightly better than a known terrorist in terms of seats and more important–change fees.

  4. dragos says:

    kayak guys should pay you for this as I guess that’s a business case they should have done by themselves. :)

  5. Stephanie says:

    Shel: I agree with you perfectly re time used and money saved, and I often use that line of reasoning for myself. It’s not worth spending 2 hours hunting for the best price for a digital camera if I’m only going to save $10.

    In this case, however, I happen to be more in need of saving money than time right now. What I mean is that the time I used for this — a lot, definitely, and more because I decided to blog about it — is not time that I would otherwise have been devoting to paid gigs (these days — there are times in my life when it is different).

    And all in all, even though I didn’t write this report with that intention, it’s a good demonstration of the kind of service I could offer (in terms of experiential marketing) — so let’s say that I clearly didn’t work billable hours on this thing, but that it falls into the “marketing” slot of how I use my time.

  6. Pingback: Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth) » Marketing expérientiel vs. publireportage

  7. Stephanie says:

    After a call with a very nice service rep from BA (after an aborted call with a much more stubborn and dumb colleague of his), I have gathered some extra information.

    • difference of price between codeshare and “original company” on the same flight: there might be 10 classes available in Economy, but only the 5 more expensive are available on codeshare
    • if flights from different airlines are on the same ticket, then in case of transfer problems they will take care of the customer. If the flights are on different tickets (booked separately), then you’re on your own if you miss your connecting flight.
    • this last point might explain why some combinations seem “missing” from the offers I got through Kayak. Some flight combinations might not be allowed to exist on the same ticket.
  8. Nicole Simon says:

    In complicated cases likes yours (this is not even a normal open jaw flight) one does call the call center of their favourite airline (in your case most likely AA as they serve with BA on the same alliance) and let them wiggle around a bit unless you already know your flight patterns.

    And they let you book such a flight because it it the legal turnaround time on the airpoirt – which for T1 to T1 in LHR for example is also an hour – and you have to have something like a call center agent to put you on a later flight.

    One reason I prefer to take a special route to SFO over LAX is simply that I do not need to go through AA’s hubs in DFW or ORD; but go LHR-LAX directly.

    I also notice that you use two allicances in your flight which will make it more expensive; also you cannot select miles this way reasonable. As you are going to SFO more than just once, I would make this part of the calculation of your trips.

    One reason for me to go through paying a bit more for my BA flights was that I now have enough miles in the bank for a free flight in their premium economy. Note: not all classes earn miles, and with a call center agent you can ask what the booking class above costs a bit more (sometimes this means the difference between 25 or 100% miles).

    Hope everything goes fine with this journey ;)

  9. Pingback: Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth) » December 2007 Recap

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