This week has been pretty exciting for travel search. First Kayak got injected with another $11.5M to fund their marketing campaign and international expansion, then AP released an article entitled "Review: Kayak Best Travel Search Engine," and then Kayak released a feature that's been missing on travel search sites for a long time: flexible date search. I'll talk about the article first and then review Kayak's flexible date search feature.
I think there's certainly an argument that Kayak is at the top of the pack, in terms of travel search engines, but I'm not sure what criteria the author used in determining that. Picking 11 O/D pairs is not exactly an objective way to determine who has the best fares and I didn't see an objective chart of features. A proper analysis would have many different dimensions with a lot of different searches. Consider this: I just did a search on all three engines from SJC->TPA. Kayak's cheapest fare was $356 on Frontier/United at Cheaptickets, but it was SFO->MCO->SFO. SideSteps's cheapest fare was $355 on Delta/Continental at Orbitz, but it was OAK->MCO->OAK. For those of you who don't know, driving from TPA to MCO is a long, long drive, because I4 is a bitch of a road, so I'd hardly consider MCO an alternate airport. Mobissimo didn't search alternate airports and got a cheapest price of $433 on American with the proper SJC->TPA itinerary. Thus, a proper analysis would have taken into account direct itineraries vs. cheapest itineraries. One might even separate the cheapest "reasonable" itinerary, e.g. one that departs and leaves from the same airport that's within an hour from the original airport. Also, one should consider groups of flights, like US->US flights, US->International Flights, and International->International flights. I'll bet that Mobissimo kicks butt internationally, for example.
Anyway, the point of that diatribe is that you don't know who has the cheapest flight from just a couple of searches. You need to fiddle around with the parameters to get a more objective view. Therefore, one should take the AP article with a grain of salt. One of these days, I'll get around to doing the analysis myself. If anyone wants to pay me for my time, I'll generate a really nice report =)
Onto Kayak's flexible date search. Kudos to Kayak for releasing a feature that's been sorely missing in the travel search world! I usually use Orbitz to find the cheapest date to fly, then head off to the travel search engines to find even better rates. I tried a search for a trip to Buffalo (note, you need to be logged in for this to work) and found an extremely cheap fare on Delta. Wow! Only $200 bucks! Granted, the interface isn't nearly as good as Orbitz's Calendar Matrix display. It's impossible for me to see what the cheapest fare is for a given departure/return date pair. Also, Kayak clearly isn't returning all fares that it could be searching. The Buffalo search returned 835 results, even though it was showing 2 departure dates and 7 return dates; a Buffalo search for specific dates returned 576 results, for comparison. This makes sense from a business perspective, because Kayak couldn't run 14 different full searches for each pair without destroying their look-to-book ratio. Nonetheless, I think it's great that Kayak has implemented this, because it's a very useful tool for finding ultra-cheap fares.
I hope the entire summer is a series of volleys among the travel search engines. This could be fun!