Cheap Tickets Cleans Up Its Site---But, Does it Deliver Cheap Tickets?
Written: Jun 29, 2004
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Good bye old Cheap Tickets web site that totally sucked, hello "new and improved" Cheap Tickets web site that sucks quite a bit less.
Those of you who travel fairly often probably know about Cheap Tickets. They advertise cheap, cheap airfares, sometimes even including fair fares on last-minute, non-weekend promo deal trips. They've been on the web for several years, but only idiots used their old web site, which even required credit card numbers to be entered and saved before it would let you search for an airfare. Some people were dumb enough to do so, but most just jumped ship to better travel web sites, relegating cheaptickets.com to the netherworlds of the second- and third-rate also-rans.
A year or so ago, the folks behind cheaptickets.com evidently wised up and decided to clean up their act. The result is a new and improved cheaptickets.com that is worlds away easier to use than the old site, that drops the insane requirement that users save credit card data before even basic browsing, and that has a few nice features that make it a fairly pleasant experience. There are still a few "gotchas" that a smart traveler will keep in mind before deciding to buy tickets on this site, but the good news is that Cheap Tickets can save you money.
Cheap Tickets looks and works a lot like most other flight reservation systems. It has a very clean, highly usable design that's attractive and functional. I see no major flaws in the basic interface.
One thing I like is the way the flexible fare finder tool works. You can use it in two different ways to help zero in on the best deals for you. The biggest way to save money on airfares is to be flexible with the dates. If you absolutely must travel on a specific date at a specific time, you could very easily end up paying many times what the guy sitting next to you paid simply because he was flexible about what days of the week he departed or returned on. If you're a real bargain hunter who wants to escape, like on a family summer vacation, and it doesn't really matter which week in July or early August you take off on, then this is the approach to maximize the savings.
The industry leader in flexible fare finder tools is Travelocity, mostly because their tool is fast, accurate, flexible, and best of all, NOT limited by geographic constraints artificially introduced by the site. Try 'em all, and I know you'll agree with me. Travelocity is the flexible fare finder to beat. I like that Cheap Tickets has one, I don't like that it works only for trips that are within the U.S.
I mentioned that there are two ways for a flexible fare finder to work. The "other" (less common) way is to search nearby airports (usually within 80 to 100 miles of your departure or arrival airport, or both. Kudos to Cheap Tickets for building in a mechanism to simply check a box to search other airports in a region for cheaper deals, but again, threats, jeers, and insults to them for not letting it work outside the U.S. (These guys really don't get it --- travel is an industry that is very NON U.S. centric. The limitations are aggravating.)
Another cool feature is the Name Your Own Price feature. This works just like Priceline, and it could save you money if the stars are aligned right and you're smart. The same general guidelines that smart travelers use for Priceline pertain here. I'll give you a few general strategy hints on naming your own prices, but first, let's talk about using the site as a whole...
How to Make Cheap Tickets Work for You...
Here's the straight skinny on how to use Cheap Tickets in a smart manner...
Rule 1: Don't use Cheap Tickets if there is any chance you're going to need hand-holding or that your plans could change.
Cheap Tickets continues to have an abyssmal reputation for bad customer service (just hang out in the Talk forums on Fodors or the Thorntree on LonelyPlanet for a few months and you'll see what I mean). The new web site seems to reinforce the badness. Case in point: they don't want to talk to you, they don't want to deal with problems.
The only "contact" method shown on the site is an email address. No phone numbers are provided. Competent travel sites have 3 features: 1) 24-hour help desk, 2) a 1-800 number for U.S. customers, 3) a non 1-800 number that can be dialed from travelers outside the comfy confines of U.S. shores. ALL THREE are critical to any travel web site, and the loss of even a single one should be regarded as sloppy incompetence.
When it's 11 o'clock in the evening, and you're standing at a hotel registration counter where the clerk informs you that they don't have your pre-paid reservation, and by the way, all the other rooms are full, you definitely do NOT want to have to go hunting for a network connection so you can compose email and then wait a few hours for a response. Even fairly poor travel agents get that concept. It ain't rocket science, but Cheap Tickets does not get it. "Good" support ratings are earned only by having all three of the features I listed, plus actually resolving issues in the way that a good traditional travel agent has always done.
Yes, Cheap Tickets does have a phone number you can call, but just try finding it when you need it (they do their best to hide it from you), and just try actually getting a resolution in real time. Just try...
Rule 2: Understand the total price you'll be paying before you accept a fare shown on Cheap Tickets.
Airline web sites do not charge fees for online booking. Many independent web sites do: cheaptickets.com charges a fee of $5 to book a flight. That is not unreasonable, just factor it in to your decision making process. Also be aware that Cheap Tickets sometimes shows you unpublished or non-standard fares, or fares on small carriers, and sometimes on foreign flag small carriers. I have no problem with that, especially if it saves me a few greenbacks, but be aware that these kinds of fares may require you to get a paper ticket, and that Cheap Tickets charges fees ranging from $20-50 per paper ticket issued. Your "savings" for booking one of these flights could be completely wiped out in "paper ticket fees" and "delivery fees". Know before you click "Accept".
Rule 3: Don't rely on Cheap Tickets if you want to travel outside the U.S. --- book with a different web site.
The features for flexible travel dates and flexible origin/destination airports work ONLY if BOTH the origin and destination are within the U.S. This essentially renders useless the one aspect of Cheap Tickets that makes the site worth using (at least for travelers like me --- I can't remember the last time I took a purely domestic flight....)
Cheap Tickets forces you to enter very exact search criteria, even for common getaway destinations like Cancun, Bermuda, Los Cabos, or the Bahamas. I find that ridiculous, especially when I compare the site to Travelocity, which has SUCH a powerful flexible travel tool --- one that reliably spots deals regardless of where the airport is located. Let's make sure we understand reality here: there is NO database or physical or legal reason why a web site limits the geographic aspect of a low-fare tool --- it is purely whim and laziness on the part of the site. Travelocity figured that out years ago, I see no excuse for a newly rolled out travel web site to continue doing things the old fashioned way. Travelers want Cheap Tickets to everywhere, not just the places that Cheap Tickets management wants to go.
How to Use the Name Your Own Price Feature...
Here are few more guidelines if you want to use the Name Your Own Price feature...
Number one: Know the going rates and the "best fares" before you place a bid, otherwise, I guarantee you, you'll be one of the teeming legions of idiots who tell us all how much you "saved" all the while paying double the price that us genuinely smart travelers paid by doing our homework before we clicked "Buy". (Happens all the time. I'm constantly amazed at the high prices people pay on SkyAuction, Priceline, Hotwire, etc. just by not knowing what they're doing.) By the way, one strategy that never works on "Name Your Own Price" web sites is to bid more in the hopes of attracting a more upscale provider --- you won't get a first-class ticket on British Airways just because you bid $200 more than the going Aeroflot coach fare --- you'll end up with an expensive coach ticket on Aeroflot. Bon voyage!
Number two: always bid less than the going best deal and don't bump up bids unnecessarily. Priceline constantly gives you "advice" about "suggested" bids. Ignore them.
Number three: you'll know when and where and how much to bid if you read up on a few of the Priceline strategy bulletin boards that are out there. The two most popular are:
Number four: never get caught up in the "auction mentality" --- if it's clear that you're not going to do substantially better by naming your own price, bag it and just go reserve a seat on a flight where you at least know what times you're traveling, you can pick your seat, and you don't have to fly Bob's Novice Pilot Airlines.
But enough of the guidelines, let's see what kinds of fares Cheap Tickets CAN deliver...
Price Sells Plane Tickets...
Nobody on the internet sells anything based on quality or on service. The only factor that really seems to count is price. I've posted quite a few reviews of travel reservation sites over the past few years, and I always do a real-world direct comparison of results based on several typical itineraries, just to see how well a site really does. Today, I ran 10 itineraries through Cheap Tickets and then cross-checked rates against identical searches on Travelocity and on Orbitz. There were 6 purely domestic itineraries, and 4 trips outside the U.S.
The results surprised me.
For U.S. domestic travel, Cheap Tickets found the low price every time 100 percent success on all test cases. Travelocity did almost as well, missing on only one (giving it an 85 percent success rate). The big surprise? Orbitz did not find the cheapest fare on even one out 6 trips! I have never found Orbitz to consistently deliver the cheapest rates, but I've also never before ran one of these test cases and not had Orbitz at least match the low fare once.
Travelocity did very well against Cheap Tickets. While Travelocity did miss one deal, it missed by only $40 (overlooking a Frontier flight from JFK-LAX connecting in Denver). If you had bought all the tickets on only one web site, you would have paid $1,066 on Cheap Tickets, $1,106 on Travelocity, and $1,435 on Orbitz. Given that Travelocity has better service than Cheap Tickets, I think I'll continue to stay with Travelocity as my preferred travel web site. If you're currently an Orbitz user, you might want to expand your horizons a bit and check out a few other travel web sites --- you could save yourself hundreds of dollars.
As I mentioned, Cheap Tickets does not have a functioning Flexible Travel feature for foreign travel. 4 of my 10 test cases are to see whether it can find rates to popular Mexican resorts and to popular European capitals. In all these cases, I had to use 3 sets of sample dates, each spanning at least one Saturday night and each at least 21 days in advance to maximize the chance for Cheap Tickets to find a low rate. The results were very disappointing.
For foreign travel, pricing things 12 different ways for 4 different routes, in no case did Cheap Tickets come within even $200 of the lowest fare I could find on Travelocity. In one case, Travelocity, with a click of the mouse, would have saved me over $500 on one single roundtrip itinerary (Cheap Tickets missed a raft of bargain airfares from JFK to London Heathrow --- one of the world's most popular routes). Bottom line: Cheap Tickets is a horrible option for travel to non-U.S. destinations, it's a lot more work to get much worse prices.
For the record, here's my test data if you feel like double-checking me. (C=CheapTickets, T=Travelocity, O=Orbitz). Low price is in bold.
IAH-JFK: (C - $313), (T - $313), (O - $283)
IAH-LAX: (C - $163), (T - $163), (O - $317)
JFK-LAX: (C - $163), (T - $203), (O - $238)
ORD-MIA: (C - $83), (T - $83), (O - $195)
BNA-MKE: (C - $197), (T - $197), (O - $223)
BWI-MSY: (C - $147), (T - $147), (O - $179)
DFW-MEX: (C - $360), (T - $203), (O - $357)
IAD-CUN: (C - $447), (T - $295), (O - $499)
DEN-PVR: (C - $414), (T - $273), (O - $375)
JFK-LHR: (C - $732), (T - $235), (O - $745)
I call myself "The World's Cheapest Traveler(tm)", and just to make sure I really was the rock-bottom cheapest, I did a bunch of research in how to find rock bottom prices, then I wrote this long dissertation about it and sent it in to a big New York publishing house. The editor called me up and said, "We love your insight, but we can only publish your work in abbreviated form as part of a larger collection of travel essays." Well, to make a long story short, I made a long story short.
Now don't you wish I could do the same thing with my Epinion reviews?
Here's the short version:
* Cheap Tickets CAN save you money: it consistently finds cheap fares FOR TRAVEL WITHIN THE UNITED STATES
* Cheap Tickets can NOT save you money if you rely on it for trips to foriegn destinations
Nice looking site with clean interface, easy to use features, some good flexible fare finder features, poor support track record, very poor support for travelers to foreign destinations, and very poor support for customers outside the U.S. (even those who want to buy U.S. domestic tickets). I like that they have a "name your price" feature, like the Priceline model, but again, I hate that they can't be bothered to extend it to people heading outside the domestic marketplace.
World travelers will find this site to be virtually useless. Red-blooded Americans just looking to save a few bucks close to home will do okay with it, as long as they don't need no stinkin' service. And that's the bottom line.
Until next time, see you on the road. As always, I'll be the guy sitting in the cheap seat.