The lowest airfare? Try asking the crowd

Randall Stross / New York Times News Service /

Travel search sites have made it easy to find the lowest available fares ever since pioneers like Expedia and Travelocity opened shop. Many others, like Kayak and Hipmunk, have since joined in.

Travelers with complex travel plans may have noticed, however, that the search results aren’t necessarily consistent. This has created an opportunity for Flightfox, a startup that uses a contest format to come up with the best fare that the crowd — all Flightfox-approved users — can find.

A traveler goes to and sets up a competition, supplying the desired itinerary and clarifying a few preferences, like a willingness to “fly on any airline to save money” or a tolerance of “long layovers to save money.”

Once Flightfox posts the contest, the crowd is invited to go to work and submit fares.

The contest runs three days, and the winner, the person who finds the lowest fare, gets 75 percent of the finder’s fee that the traveler pays Flightfox when setting up the competition. Flightfox says fees depend on the complexity of the itinerary; many current contests have fees in the $34-to-$59 range.

Travelers’ savings can be considerable. In a contest for a long, complex trip that began in Sydney, passed through Barcelona and then many South American destinations before returning to Sydney, the difference between the lowest fare, $6,538 a person, and the third-lowest was about $1,400. Why couldn’t every human searcher find the same fare that the winner did? The fact that the travelers specified 15 destinations for their four-month-long trip meant that no single search engine had all the needed information.

Flightfox asks travelers who have already found a good fare on their own to make clear at the outset that they will award the finder’s fee only if a better price is found. The site also encourages travelers to consider awarding a finder’s fee for flights that may not be less expensive but have fewer stops or shorter layovers.

Human searchers can find flights that handle special requests, like traveling with a pet or a surfboard, to which a travel search engine remains oblivious. Todd Sullivan, a software developer and co-founder of Flightfox, says, “There are too many variables for it to be economically feasible to build an algorithm that covers every aspect of travel.”

Sullivan says the company has about 900 researchers, which it calls “experts,” who search fares on behalf of the sponsoring travelers. Anyone can apply to be an “expert”; Sullivan says applicants need only show evidence of the ability to find good fares. About 20 percent of the Flightfox researchers are travel agents. Another large group are what Sullivan calls “flight hackers,” people who enjoy the sport of fare-hunting and frequent sites like FlyerTalk. “They do this at sites like this for free anyhow,” Sullivan says. “We’ve commercialized it.”

The other large group of researchers comprises frequent travelers seeking ways to make money to finance their travel. Sullivan says he and his co-founder, Lauren McLeod, were in this category when they started the company early this year.

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