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December 11, 2003 -- Want to book a ticket on a US Airways flight? Don't use Expedia. The financially teetering airline has yanked its fares from the travel agency's Web site in a spat over transaction fees, the little bits o' honey that travel agencies tack on to your ticket so they can make a profit.

Here's the deal: Expedia normally charges $5 per ticket. When they upped their fee for US Airways tickets to $8.99 and kept many other airlines' fees at $5, US Airways cried foul. Expedia refused to buckle, and US Airways pulled their fares.

So what really happened? Expedia told us, "Our ticketing fees depend on the compensation Expedia.com receives from the airlines, which varies." In English: they weren't getting the juice they wanted from US Airways, so they upped the fees. This is a pretty normal practice in the industry. Competitor Orbitz charges $11 instead of $6 to book tickets on three airlines that don't pay them commissions. (More on that below.)

Of course, you don't pay any transaction fee at all when booking a ticket through an airline's own Web site, or through the browser plug-in SideStep (www.sidestep.com). So why keep booking through travel agencies? Agencies can sometimes negotiate lower fares than airlines offer on their own sites. And we like the agencies' itinerary-management and flight-alert options.

Until all this blows over, you'll have to look for fares on several travel agency Web sites, but heck, you should have been doing that anyway.

How Much Does a Free Lunch Cost?

We asked several major travel agencies how much their transaction fees cost, and, well, there was some waffling.

  • Expedia's standard fee is $5. But they said, "from time to time Expedia uses variable fees," and wouldn't go much further.
  • Orbitz charges $6 for domestic tickets and $10 for international tickets. But they charge $11 for tickets on ATA, Great Lakes, Frontier and Alitalia, which don't offer them commissions, they said. And we've seen $3 fees on some Northwest tickets. "Occasionally airlines supplement the fee," an Orbitz spokeswoman told us.
  • Travelocity told us they charge $5 for all tickets.
  • Lowestfare.com's booking fee is a consistent $6.95, they say.
  • SideStep doesn't charge fees; they skim their profits off commissions and advertising.
  • Priceline's fees for their name-your-price tickets are $5.95.
  • Hotwire charges a $5 fee to use their opaque-fare service.

Who to Book, Where

The Expedia-US Airways spat isn't the first time there's been a falling out between an airline and a travel agency. Expedia stopped selling Northwest tickets for a short period in 2002 because of a similar dispute. Southwest and JetBlue don't appear on most travel agency Web sites because they feel they can keep their costs low by cutting out the online middlemen. That means you must check Southwest's and JetBlue's sites along with your usual travel agency sites when booking any flight where those airlines' routes are in the running.

Spirit lists their fares on travel agency Web sites, but they often offer significant discounts for booking on their own site, so you should check there (www.spiritair.com) rather than just trusting the fares you see on agency sites.

You also won't find these tiny airlines or their ilk on any travel agency website:

These super-low-fare carriers follow Southwest and JetBlue's example in saying they're keeping costs down by not paying the travel agencies to be listed on their sites.

SideStep's browser plug-in displays Southwest and JetBlue flights. They don't show Southeast, USA 3000, or Allegiant flights. (They told us they do show Hooters Air flights, but we couldn't get Hooters flights to come up when we tried. That could have been due to problems with Hooters' system, though.)

When you get outside of the US, you'll find plenty of oddball foreign carriers that don't show up on US agency sites because they're unwilling or technologically unable to feed their fares into the sites' computer systems. That's why you have to use the comprehensive schedule data provided by OAG (www.oagflights.com) if you're trying to plan a trip from, say, Beirut to Tblisi. Europe's low-fare airlines, such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) also don't show up on any agency sites.

Aside from US Airways and the other exceptions above, you'll find all the major and most minor airlines on Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.

Priceline lists their participating carriers on their Web site, but the page is un-linkable. Domestically, they sell tickets on America West, American, Aloha, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Midwest, United and US Airways -- notice that they don't use Northwest.

Hotwire's list of domestic airlines is here (www.hotwire.com/travel-information/partners/domestic-airline-partners.jsp). They use United, Continental, American, US Airways, America West, Delta, Northwest, Aloha and Hawaiian.

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