Being My Own Travel Agent With Kayak [en]

[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 []( 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 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 search: GVA-ORK-AUS-SFO-GVA

And here is what I got: 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… 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:** 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: GVA - LON

That’s helpful, actually. I wouldn’t have thought to check [BA]( The flight is way too early, though. And 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? 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: 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.




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: 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).


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: 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 (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 about:


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: 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: 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: 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? 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. 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? 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: 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: 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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Berlin, Belgrade: Two Contrasting Airport Experiences [en]

[fr] Je déteste vraiment la sécurité dans les aéroports. C'est d'une hypocrisie primaire et le résultat principal en est une péjoration du comfort des voyageurs. Je raconte dans ce billet deux expériences contrastées (mes deux derniers vols).

L'aéroport Tegel a Berlin, où tout s'est passé comme sur des roulettes, même si j'ai eu bien peur de rater mon vol (imaginez: je me suis pointée au faux aéroport, moins de deux heures avant décollage). A Tegel, le taxi vous dépose directement au terminal. Le check-in est à 5m de la porte. Le contrôle des passeports est à côté (vraiment) du check-in (disons 3m). Le contrôle sécurité est droit derrière. Et la zone d'attente pour la porte est juste après. De check-in à salle d'attente, 10m et 5 minutes à tout casser.

A Belgrade par contre... Ce fut moins fun. Personnel peu agréable, renseignements médiocres, vilain sandwich tout sec... et pour couronner le tout, "double" sécurité. Eh oui, non seulement faut-il faire la queue pour faire passer aux rayons X toutes ses petites affaires avant le contrôle des passeports, mais encore faut-il passer par le même cirque à la port, pour accéder à la zone d'attente. Je vous passe les chaises en métal et les courants d'air...

Inutile de dire que je suis ravie de rentrer à Lausanne en train depuis Paris, et que j'espère que les grèves continueront à ne pas avoir d'influences sur les TGVs à destination de la Suisse!

Flying out of Berlin could have been a nightmare. It actually turned out to be a rather smooth experience. The nightmarish bit is that I went to the wrong airport to catch my plane. I flew in to Shönefeld (?), so naturally assumed that I would be flying out from there two.

When I arrived at the airport less than two hours before take-off, I checked the departure board and couldn’t find my flight. Suddenly, it hit me: this wasn’t the only airport in Berlin. A brief panicked enquiry at the airport information desk later, I was grabbing a taxi, calling the JAT office in Tegel Airport to explain the situation (they had my ticket waiting there for me), and deciding that 70€ to take the predictable but longer motorway route (it was peak hour and the town was gridlocked) was better than missing my flight.

My taxi driver was nice, reassuring, and cut quite a few lines to get me there on time.

Here is where it became smooth. Like most of you I guess. I’m used to airports where you need to wait in line for check-in, then walk to passport control, wait in line again, then walk to security, wait in line again, then finally, walk to the gate.

None of that nonsense at Tegel Airport. I had been given the terminal number by the person I spoke to at the JAT office, who told me my ticket would be waiting for me at check-in. My taxi dropped me off at the terminal.

I went through the door.

I walked 5 metres.

I waited 2 minutes at check-in, was greeted by a smiling hostess, given my ticket, and checked in.

The door to security — no kidding — was *just next to the check-in desks*. 10 steps away. And passport control was *just before the door to security*. And the gate itself (the waiting area) was *just behind security*. From check-in to the gate: less than 10 meters. Within 5 minutes I was through all of it.

And I wasn’t (by far) the last person to check in. I was early, actually.

Contrast that with my departure from Belgrade, five days later. (Oh, let me mention in passing that I had the most frightening landing of my life in Belgrade. I’m not a frightened flyer, but the weather was really very rough and stormy, with the plane rocking left and right and dropping abruptly as we were approaching the landing strip. And once on the ground, it didn’t stop either — precisely because the plane wasn’t slowing down, and was making dreadful noises. We stopped OK in the end, but from my point of view we were moving way too fast on that runway for way too long.)

Back to my experience this noon in Belgrade Airport. First, I have to say it was overall not very friendly.

I asked the check-in woman where I could change money and eat. She indicated two places for that, which meant I had to change money (lots of dinars) first and eat (paying in dinars) second. Great. Then, the change office didn’t have Swiss francs. Even greater (I now have enough euros to settle down in Paris for a month, nearly.)

I got a really nasty sandwich for a small fraction of the money I had been advised to keep for the meal, and then realised that I could change money on that floor too. *They* had Swiss francs, but with the amount of dinars I had it was more interesting to change in euros. Then, once I’d gotten rid of all my dinars, I noticed there was at least one other food place — nicer than the one I’d been to, of course.

Oh well.

I queued through security, did my usual Empty Half Your Bag And Get Half Undressed stunt, waited in my socks while the person at security control searched the bags of the woman before me (one person per machine, takes care of searching too, so when a bag is searched, the machine stops too — efficient, isn’t it?), and headed to passport control.

A rather unfriendly woman there gruffly asked me for my boarding pass (it had slipped out of my travel documents into my bag) and put a nasty wet stamp on it before folding it back into my passport. I had to wipe the wet ink off the (thankfully plastified) page with all my personal details.

Once in the “sterile” area, I noticed there were another two places where I could have eaten (oh, well) but no board with flight numbers and gates. I asked a member of staff who was passing by, and she pointed me to the travel information desk where I got the answer I needed.

I walked down the corridor to the gate and was quite surprised to find the place rather empty (this was about 10 minutes before announced boarding time). There was an open door with a corridor leading somewhere cold, and a closed door next to the flight details for the gate, behind which I could see a security machine and a bored young man in a uniform.

There were a few metal seats in the draughty corridor.

I tried to open the closed door, but it was — closed. I made interrogative signs to the young man, who got up to open the door and tell me that this was the right place, only later.

I therefore sat on a draughty metal seat and waited.

Slowly, more people arrived. Airline and airport employees, too. The door opened. Closed. Opened. Closed. Passengers got up and started to form a line (boarding time passed), so I got up too.

And waited in the cold. And cursed at the security machine I could see through the glass door.

You probably know I’m sick of airport security. It’s hypocritical (there mainly to cover some people’s precious arses), basically abusing poor passengers and making our lives miserable when we travel under pretense of keeping us safe from “terrorists”.

Right. So when you make everybody entering one part of the airport (what I call the “sterile area”) go through security and show ID… and you do the same thing **again** later on… what kind of message are you sending?

You’re basically saying: oh, well, our sterile area isn’t really sterile, you see — we don’t trust our own security screening. So please, let us screen you again. You know, just in case one of you entered this part of the airport without going through security, or managed to sneak a gun or explosives past us.

What do you think my opinion of airport security is now?

The cabin crew went through first, and for a wild moment I thought that *maybe* this was just for them, because for some reason they might not have had to go through the same long line of waiting for bags to be searched as us.

But I was wrong. One by one, 15 minutes after announced boarding time, we put our stuff in the X-ray machine again. Did I mention it was cold and draughty? I wasn’t happy to be in my socks again. And no, I didn’t feel bad about holding up the line because I put my stuff in four different trays to make sure I don’t raise any flags (got searched for cables in my bag, once — now they go through separate).

Colour me grumpy.

So, now that everybody had been doubly screened and that we were doubly safe, we got to sit down in more draughty metal chairs and wait. And then, stand up in line again and wait.

I am *so* glad I’m going back to Lausanne by train from Paris.

I just hope the strikes in France continue to not affect connections to Switzerland…

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