How opaque fares work—"Express Deals" on Priceline and "Hot Rates" on Hotwire
"Supply and Demand" is a two-way street, and the Internet is the traffic cop that finally pointed that fact out to the travel industry.
Now, when the airline industry has an excess of supply or and lack of demand, it can sell the extra seats at a discount via opaque airfares.
Opaque airfares—Pick a price; take your chances; get savings
You know those commercials for discount clothing warehouses where they crow about their great savings on brand names, only they're not allowed to tell you the brand names?
That's opaque pricing.
Once you put an airfare search into the two booking engines that offer opaque fares—Hotwire and Priceline—it gives you all the pricing options, topped with a fare that is lower than the others, but is missing two elements: airline names, and specific departure times. (Hotwire called these "Hot Rates;" Priceline "Express Deals" or "Priceline Exclusives".)
Unlike the old Priceline bid-on-airfare/name-you-own-price model (which it quietly dropped in the fall of 2016), you do actually get to specify the actual airport.
Your dates (departure/return) and cities (where you are and where you wanna go), and they give you a price to match. You pick the price you like (hint: it's the lowest one). Only after you pay the virtual piper do you find out the name of the airline and precise times of the flights.
The trade-off? You can snag deals up to 40% off published airfares (and 75% off hotel rates).
There's nothing fishy about all this. It’s just a way for airlines to move empty seats at amounts that far undercut their published fares without admitting that they're willing to sell seats for so little.
Also, it's not as if you'll be stuck flying My Cousin Sal's Podunk Airline. They are all big names like American Airlines, Delta, Alitalia, Cathay Pacific, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.
(This opaque fares model also extends to thousands of hotels (mostly chains) around the world—including hotels in central Rome starting at $118 in high season. Which hotels? Couldn't tell you. That's what they mean by "opaque.")
- Priceline.com - For both airfares and hotels, offers Express Deals (set prices, up to 60% off). Though in late 2016 they quietly retired the famous option to bid on airfares, you can still "Name Your Own Price" for hotel rooms.Partner
- Hotwire.com - Offers Hot Rates, discounts on flights and hotels where you get the basics (price, deaprture city, and time window for airfares; price, neighborhood, and star rating for hotels), but not the details (actual name of airline/hotel, precise dpearture time), until you make the booking.Partner
- Bidontravel.com - This is the sleekest and most user-friendly interface of these three resources, more of a tip sheet and guided advice than a free-for-all message board (like the others) where the gems are buried between 1,001 postings all asking "Did I get a good deal?" It provides an online guide to gaming both Priceline and Hotwire for the best deals in every travel category: airfare, hotels, rental cars, vacation packages, and last-minute deals.
- Biddingfortravel.com - A message board for Priceline and Hotwire fanatics. The message board forums are packed full of general helpful hints for online auctions.
- Betterbidding.com - Similar to BiddingForTravel.com—another message board format—but a bit more homegrown, plus it has a bunch on Hotwire.com as well as on Priceline.com (in fact, it was started as a Hotwire tips site and later expanded to include Priceline).
- Momondo.com - (Aggregator) Before I get into details, just know this: 95% of the time, I find the lowest fares on Momondo. Momondo quietly blows most of the other aggregators out of the water. It searches more than 600 airline sites, plus booking engines, search engines, travel agencies, online discounters, etc. This is two to three times as many sources as the competition—including the low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines most of the other search engines ignore—and it pays off. You can also quickly see which flight is cheapest and which quickest (and which best overall), as well as use all the usual filters on the results (length of flight, departure/arrival times, number of stops, airlines, etc.). I ran Momondo through many tests, and it almost always found the lowest available fares on domestic, Transatlantic, and inter-European flights. It found fares from carriers none of the others did, and when it did find the same flights as some of the competition, it almost invariably managed to find a lower price for it. For now, at least, I'm calling it: Momondo is the single best resource out there, bar none.Partner
- Flyinternational.com - (Consolidator) The airfares branch of AutoEurope.com consistently offers among the cheapest (and most reliable) European airfare consolidators out there. Barring some sale fare elsewhere, this is where I almost always end up buying my transatlantic tickets for the simple reason that they are almost always the cheapest. This is also why I chose to partner with them for this site.Partner
- Skyscanner.com - (Aggregator) Another excellent aggregator that, like Momondo, also includes the little low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines ignored by most other search engines. I like that you can be as vague on your departure/arrivial points as simply an entire country, rather than a specific city of airport—you never know when, say, a flght into Manchester will actually be cheaper than one to London.Partner
- Hotwire.com - (OTA) Offers regaular fare searches and Hot Rates opaque fares (cost less, but with slightly less control over departure times and other details)Partner
- VirginAtlantic.com - Given all options, I will actually pay a bit more for Virgin Atlantic flight than one on any other airline. They just treat you so much better.Partner
- Google.com/flights - (Aggregator) Google has acquired ITA, the original airfare booking engine long used by travel agents. It's now available to the general public, and niftily shows you the rough current lowest cost for flights to pretty much anywhere from your hometown via a Google map measled with red dots marking major cities around the world. It doesn't allow you to book, but will tell you where/how to book the results it finds. Not really a strong performer on internaitonal flights yet—though, oddly, does a good job with last-minute international fares, so worth checking.
- Expedia.com - (OTA) Expedia—which does a fine job on middle-of-the-road fares—is the last remaining of the Big Three online travel agencies. (Expedia bought both Travelocity and Orbitz in 2015; Travelocity's search results are now identical to those at Expsia, and we can only hope Orbitz's lackluster results follow suit.)Partner
- Hipmunk.com - (Aggregator) The aggregator that rethought how searches should be delivered—and I always like those who think outside the search box. All results are shown on a timeline, and the default sort-order for flights that match your search is "Agony"—a combination factoring in price, flight duration, and stopovers—so that the least annoying options pop up first. You can also sort more traditionally by price, duration, departure time, arrival time, non-stop only, and ask it to favor your preferred airlines (or airline alliance). One drawback: It really only serarches the airlines directly plus a few booking engines like Expedia, so you're not getting the full story (no discounters are in the mix). Still: handy.
- CheapOair.com - (OTA) Upstart consolidator and discounter using the power of the Web to weave together the best bargains and negotiated discounts with three reservations systems and fifteen travel service providers—something of a mash-up of a traditional booking service and a wholesaler. It claims 18 million exclusive flight deals, a low airfare guarantee, and 84,000 negotiated hotel rates.Partner
- Vayama.com - (Aggregator) One of the original international airfare aggregators, and still one of the better ones.Partner