A Warning about Internet Booking of Airline Tickets in Developing Countries

Booking airlines tickets for my recent trip to Singapore was a headache. Though everything worked out okay in the end, I was frustrated and stressed for a week as I repeatedly tried to book tickets listed as available on travel aggregator websites (e.g., kayak/sidestep, orbitz), only to find those flights were not priced as promised or didn't exist at all.

This is my tale. I wrote this a few weeks after the incident--after my blood stopped boiling. My memory may be wrong: I may be confusing airline names or the details of the situation. Regardless, this tale captures my sentiments.

When I began planning for my trip, there were many round-trip tickets available with one stop in each direction in the four hundred dollar range, and some non-stop round-trip tickets for six hundred and something dollars. Many of these flights were at absurd times (e.g., take-off before 8am, red-eyes); I knew I had some work cut out for me to sort through the flights and find decent ones.

China Eastern, for instance, had good flights to Singapore. Though the return flights left at uncomfortable times (7am), I eventually convinced myself this was the best I could get at a reasonable price (under six hundred, which was my target given these had stops), but when I tried to book the flight the aggregator websites said they did not exist and the China Eastern website itself listed the round-trip itinerary at eight hundred dollars.

I looked at more flights and spent a night thinking about my next best option.

My next try involved selecting a direct flight. The only round-trip direct flights were on Malaysia Airlines. The return flight left at a god-awful 6:45am, but it was the best of a bad lot of flight times for <$700. However, when I tried booking these flights, the aggregator said the flights were no longer available. Checking Malaysia Airlines' website, I couldn't find these 6:45am return flights listed. The only returns they had were red-eye flights leaving around midnight, even worse than an early-morning flight.

I looked at more flights and spent another night thinking about the next best option.

China Southern seemed to have okay flights listed by the aggregator websites. However, one couldn't book through the aggregator websites, but only through China Southern's website, and, as it turns out, the English interface to China Southern's website--meant for international travelers--only allowed booking of international flights to a particular set of Western airports (NY, Paris, etc.). I couldn't book the flights I wanted on the English website. In contrast, on the Chinese website--meant for Chinese citizens/flights originating in China--, I couldn't book tickets using an international credit card. Only cards issued within China are accepted.

More flights, more thinking.

Air China was the next airline I tried, and, as I recall, the aggregator websites refused to book the flights ("the fare you want is no longer available") and the Air China website itself priced the tickets several hundred dollars higher.

More flights, another night of thinking.

I tried a multiple-carrier itinerary, but again the fares were no longer available.

I tried another airline.

More thinking, more searching for flights.

It's important to note that by now five days have passed, yet all the prices and flights listed on travel search web sites were exactly the same as when I began searching for flights. The travel search results were packed with flights that when you attempted to book them, you'd find they no longer existed at that price or the flight didn't exist at all. I started internalizing a set of rules: for this airline, round-trips that involve flights that leave at this time are actually priced at this cost, three hundred dollars higher than listed; for this other airline, any non-redeye flight is erroneously listed at prices the same as the redeye flights on the same day, but they can't be booked at this price; for one airline, this particular flight does not exist; for yet another airline, all prices are wrong.

Eventually, I selected a multi-carrier itinerary that involved a direct flight to Singapore and a one-stop flight back to Shanghai. One travel aggregator would actually allow me to book the ticket at the price quoted (a bit under seven hundred). As is my habit, I tried to cut out the middleman and book the two one-way tickets directly on the two airlines' web sites. Naturally (as you should've expected by now), I couldn't book the two tickets together (despite the airlines being entirely unrelated) for anywhere near the price the aggregator was offering. I found this surprising, as I'd learned that the aggregators listed countless flights and prices the airlines wouldn't honor. Now I'd found a set of tickets the aggregator would allow but the airlines wouldn't provide directly. Nonetheless, after all this frustration hunting for a passable flight, I had finally found a reasonably plausible flight and I wasn't going to pass it up.

I booked the ticket with more than a little angst, wondering how it would be issued given that the airlines didn't seem like they would honor it for the given price. However, now that the trip is over, I can happily report that there were no unpleasant surprises at the airport.

What's the take-home message? Regardless of the final success of one aggregator, the horrors of the multiple attempted (and failed) bookings over the week make me say one shouldn't use travel aggregator websites when looking for / booking an itinerary on an airline based in a developing (i.e., non-web-savvy) country. Judging by this experience, the feeds given to travel aggregators by this class of airlines are just plain wrong.

Addendum: Later, I learned that english.ctrip.com is useful for travel in China and neighboring countries and doesn't have any of these problems. By mid-February 2010, I researched and booked tickets for three separate trips using ctrip, with none of the frustrations I previously had.

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