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November 18, 2004 -- If you're reading this, you probably know to shop around for airfare. As a smart shopper, you compare Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, SideStep, major airline sites and low-fare airlines. Maybe you even dip into Priceline or Hotwire when you're feeling lively.

But how about checking out Opodo or Airstop? Consumer Web Watch, a unit of Consumers Union, teamed up with similar organizations in six European countries to compare the three biggest U.S. travel sites against their European counterparts for international airfares, and found that U.S. and U.K. sites often lag behind Belgian and German online travel agents in finding the lowest fares.

"For Americans wondering if better online travel deals are available outside the U.S., this project demonstrates that the answer is clearly yes," CWW researcher William McGee says in a 58-page report, linked below.

U.S. sites did have relatively good results for tickets originating from the U.S. -- which are the tickets that most Americans will be buying. Orbitz, especially, showed excellent results for tickets from the US to Europe.

But we'd warn that often you can get lower fares on major airlines' own websites for the exact same tickets Orbitz and its cohorts sell -- in part because the airlines' own sites don't charge transaction fees.

And notably, the CWW project didn't check out Europe's many low-fare airlines, such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com). CWW's results interest us for intercontinental travel, but we've found in the past that low-fare airlines that don't appear on major booking sites often beat major airlines' rates by huge margins for flights within Europe.

If you're booking international tickets, especially within Europe, first see if any low-fare airlines cover your route. There are no true aggregators for low-fare airlines, but www.flybudget.com (which we originally reported on here) is a good place to start. EuropeByAir (www.europebyair.com) offers many airlines and routes that Flybudget.com doesn't, all for a flat rate of $99/flight. CWW also recommends WhichBudget (www.whichbudget.com) to research low-fare airlines; if you want to see low-fare choices on a map, go to SkyScanner (www.skyscanner.net/map).

Also, be aware that it's usually cheapest to book tickets at a site based in your ticket's country of origin. In other words, if you're flying from Belgium to Denmark, Belgian sites are more likely to give you low fares than British or U.S. sites. This rule extends into "real-life" travel agencies, too. Once, when flying from South Africa to India, I found fares from U.S.-based travel agents to be over $500 -- but fares in South Africa were as low as $230.

Remember that if you're booking through a foreign website, most will require you to have a mailing address in their country if you buy paper tickets. You can use a hotel or a friend's address, but we suggest restricting foreign online airfare purchases to e-tickets, where there's no mailing involved. Travel agency sites will tell you before you buy whether a ticket is paper or electronic.

When shopping major travel agency sites, add Opodo (www.opodo.co.uk) to your shopping list. CWW's research showed Opodo to often beat US-based sites on the routes they tested. Americans can book on Opodo, as long as they stick to e-tickets, because Opodo will only send paper tickets within the UK. You can use a US credit card to book your tickets, but you have to enter a fake UK address on the page before you enter your credit card details.

Airstop (www.airstop.be) also has good fares, according to CWW, and they have an English-language version that provided the same fares as their French version on 10 routes we tested. But they don't appear to sell e-tickets, limiting shopping on Airstop to people who can pick up tickets in Belgium and the Netherlands.

If you speak French, apparently Travelprice (www.travelprice.be) is a world of discounts. In CWW's testing of a basket of international routes, they delivered the lowest fares an astounding 49% of the time -- and they book e-tickets, so you can book with them from the USA. But they only have French and Dutch versions of their site.

To read the full CWW report, go to www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/globalairfare/index.html.

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