Plane Truths

Q: I've gotten some pretty good travel deals on Orbitz.com. But my brother says I should steer clear of the site because it's part of some sinister airline cabal. Am I getting suckered somehow? It's hard to imagine a $99 round-tripper to Orlando could be a rip-off.Few corners of the Web have stirred the sort of hullabaloo caused by Orbitz, a travel booker co-founded by the nation's five biggest airlines. Travel agents, consumer groups, and online competitors are screaming bloody murder, claiming that United, Delta, and other major carriers are using Orbitz to hatch a monopoly. Egged on by dozens of irate congressmen, the Justice Department is pondering an antitrust suit against the venture. All of which means diddly-squat to bargain hunters like you, at least for the time being.

The granddaddies of Web travel, Expedia and Travelocity, still sell far more tickets than Orbitz, a Johnny-come-lately that accounts for only 2 percent of online sales. But thanks to its corporate lineage, Orbitz has a few advantages to exploit as it builds market share. First off, the service can book reservations directly into an airline's computer, thus bypassing the electronic middlemen employed by Expedia and Travelocity. That shaves a few bucks off the total price, though Orbitz does get a bit sneaky by charging a $5-per-ticket fee.

The real humdinger, however, is the so-called most-favored-nations (MFN) clause, which forbids participating carriers from offering their lowest fares to rival bookers without also listing them on Orbitz. So if American has a special $200 JFK-to-Denver fare to offer, you're not going to find it on Expedia alone; it'll always be on Orbitz first. And, increasingly, on Orbitz alone.

Travel agents are obviously bumming about this arrangement, as it threatens to limit their business to only the techno-ignorant—why pay a $39 surcharge when Orbitz will get you a cheapie for a fiver? And Travelocity and Expedia argue that Orbitz will always undercut their prices, and eventually force them into Chapter 11—at which time, the story goes, the airlines will jack up fares. That monopolistic scenario has the Justice Department's antitrust unit bristling, and spurred a heated congressional hearing in July. (Citing packed schedules, Orbitz officials didn't show up for the House grilling.)

Mr. Roboto's an eternal skeptic when it comes to corporate shadiness, and red flags went a-waving when I noticed that Orbitz is being defended by none other than the misleadingly named Association for Competitive Technology, a Microsoft-backed group that regards antitrust laws as the devil's work. But field tests reveal that reports of Orbitz's pricing supremacy are greatly exaggerated. I checked fares for 20 routes on Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz; flights ranged from Northeast shuttle hops to a Singaporean whopper. Orbitz performed well on popular runs, especially those involving "hubs" for the majors. But as the flights grew longer or more obscure, Travelocity and Expedia began to triumph. Factoring in the $5 surcharge, Orbitz had the cheapest fare just seven times.

Keep in mind, though, that Orbitz is a relatively new enterprise, so its fares may get cheaper once the kinks are ironed out—or, a cynic might note, once the company gets a legal "all clear" from John Ashcroft's underlings, as it did from transportation officials two weeks ago.

The travel portals are convenient, but if finding a bargain's your utmost priority, you'll have to snoop around some more. Orbitz doesn't list fares on several discount carriers, most notably Southwest Airlines (southwest.com). Try downloading the booking tool SideStep (sidestep.com) to scour the Web for the cheapest deals, or visit an airline's site directly. There's also pay-what-you-like services like Priceline.com, of course, though you might need a high tolerance for travel glitches—if you ever run into Mr. Roboto at a bar, ask about my awful Air Canada-via-Priceline ordeal.

Anyone heading abroad is probably best off dealing with an old-fashioned, over-the-phone travel agent—they have magical knacks for gleaning super-cheap tickets to exotic destinations. Orbitz can get you to Disney World for a C-note, but the major carriers have yet to offer a comparable sweetheart deal for Ouagadougou.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com

 
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