14 July 2006

Why Wasn't This Done Sooner?

One of the reasons we decided to move to Germany was that it improved the foreign travel opportunities considerably.

Inside Germany, at least in our neck of the woods, hopping on a train is economical and efficient. But sometimes, when we want to go a bit farther, the multitude of low-cost airlines in Europe open up the possibility to get away for a long weekend at a reasonable price. If you look at our recent trip to Bologna, we had a long weekend coming up and we wanted to go somewhere. The weather was still on the crappy side of spring weather, and we wanted something warm. For simplicity's sake, we wanted to leave from Stuttgart, so I scoured the web sites of German Wings, Hapag-Lloyd, Easy-Jet, Ryan Air, Air Berlin, and probably others (our favorite name is Wizz Air), looking for cheap Stuttgart to "X" trips, where "X" was someplace warm (Spain, Portugul, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, etc.). I had to flip between several open tabs before I could narrow it down to Bologna. Why wasn't there a web site with all of these low-cost airlines' prices on one site, like Orbitz or Travelocity does with the majors?

Let's look at another example. Right now, we want to go somewhere for a long weekend. It doesn't matter so much where, we just want to get away. It has been dreadfully hot here the last couple weeks, so someplace in the northern half of Europe (Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, etc.) would work great. The day is unimportant, we're more concerned with finding one of those locations for a decent price. All the airlines' web sites make me lock in a day (sometimes with a +/- 3 or 5 or 7 day window, but it is still heavily constrained) and a start & end point before revealing a price. And by starting at a specific airline's web site, I have already plugged in one variable. In other words, to compare just the 5 airlines I listed above, with the 4 destinations (assuming only one destination city in each), and limiting myself to starting in Stuttgart, I have to do 20 web searches and be more or less committed to a date. And revising the search sometimes means re-filling in the date or endpoints, because the form doesn't play well with the back button, for some reason. (Why do some web forms happily keep your old values, while other annoying web sites even more happily erase them and make you start over?)

Why can't I reverse the process? Why select a date and airline first? To us, at the moment, the crucial variable is Stuttgart. It really is the easiest airport for us to use in our carless state. The destination, airline and date are flexible and the order is less important. But show me the price range all along the way, so I can evaluate the choices of each variable as I go, rather than how most travel sites do it: give me the answer at the end, without any indication of how each choice affects the price.

A few days ago, I found skyscanner.net, and it is the best tool for this multi-variable database lookup that I have found so far. Anyone slightly geeky should see the usefulness of SkyScanner when wilcard options "Any Country", "Any Destination", "Any Airport", "Any Month", and "Any Day" are the inital query options. Taking it through its paces, I plug in "Depart from Germany, Stuttgart Airport; to Any Country, any Airport in Any Month". SkyScanner happily gives me a list, sorted by price, of the countries I can visit and which airlines will go there. At this time, for €40 and some change, I can go to Italy. It's too hot there right now, and they are all crazy-acting after winning the World Cup, but I'll continue to use Italy as my example right now. After selecting a country, I am then presented with a choice of destinations, again in price order. Here we learn that the €40.90 fare was to someplace called Cagliari, but famous places like Pisa (€47.01) or Rome (€66.38) are also on the list of about 12 cities. If I was feeling rich, I would spend €85.30 cents and go to Catania.

But, since I am a cheapskate, and I have never been there before, I'll go with Cagliari. When I select that city, I am presented with a month selector, which includes the cheapest fare for the month. I have to wait until December before I can get that €40.90 roundtrip fare. But I need a vacation sooner than that, so I will choose July for my outbound flight (€40.09 for that leg) and August for the return (€25.05 for that one! €65.14 roundtrip isn't that much higher than the orginal €40.90, unless I go by percentage... That gets the math part of my brain pig-bitin' mad!). Then I am presented with a calendar that graphically shows me that I can't leave at the end of July and return in early August for less than €150, so I will have to rethink the options. Maybe Pisa will work better. A few presses of the back button is a lot easier than tabbing through 5 or 6 airlines' web sites and plowing through the rigid search options they offer.

So maybe my example isn't so great, but for me, it is the most versatile web site I have seen for finding good flight prices. And the wildcard options in the beginning make it so easy. Maybe someday there will be something like this for flights in the US (or, even better, for flights form the US to Germany, so my mom can better weigh the time vs. cost alternatives). For now, I know SkyScanner will save me time when I try to figure out our next short excursion. Which is looking like Dublin or Stockholm right now, thanks to SkyScanner!

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