Airfares to Europe in July-August / Online search vs Travel Agent (not Expedia/Travelocity etc. but an actual agent)

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May 16, 2018
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#1
Hello,

This is my first time posting, and I decided not to post in the Travel Agencies section because the only sub-threads are for the online variety, which I will not use. (Additionally I have not seen that Expedia and CheapOAir and the like have better prices for my route.)

I have traveled extensively and have always booked my own travel, but am lately finding it a fairly miserable experience. I am planning a trip (with family) from Boston to Vienna, Austria in August (maybe could leave late July) and the prices are sobering. I don't mind doing the work....but it's been fruitless. I thought this would be a great moment to hire a brick-and-mortar travel agent, but I'm striking out there too. Here's what I'm finding:

1. The fare alert websites are fairly useless, routinely either ignoring the dates I put in and using the click bait to drag me to the site for fares that are in the wrong months, or they send me alerts that are consistently higher than what I find on the airline's own websites. I've tried Hopper, Skyskanner, Kayak, Secret Travel....you name it. Some of them only display fares of online travel agencies, which I won't use. Hopper has been wrong (compared to the actual airline websites) for the last 2 months. They all just feel like spam at this point.

2. The individual websites of the airlines are equally frustrating, since I cannot check which legs of the trip are driving up the price and break it out. When I try it as a multi-city search the price gets astronomical for the same reason--can't see which flights are cheapest.
The telephone reps at the airlines can, in fact, do this and are very helpful, but I find it takes 20-30 minutes to get anyone on the phone, even during standard business hours, and I already have a job...

By the way, I have gone to the sites of various budget carriers, but discovered that even if I am willing to piece together a trip using those, the savings evaporate when you add a checked bag, a carry on, and a seat assignment.

3. The 5 brick-and-mortar travel agencies I contacted have been equally frustrating.
- 3 were immediately eliminated because they don't have a satisfactory method of contact in an emergency
- 2 disappeared when I didn't agree to book/purchase their first offers
- 1 remains who is eager and helpful, but her routings are all pieced together with different airlines on each leg. That would be fine (on one reservation/ticket) if the prices were lower but they are just as high. When I inquired, she said that the prices were actually even higher but that her agency has "contracted fares" with these airlines providing a "lower" price.

I asked her whether the contracted fares mean that she only checks and books certain airlines. I told her that it's fine if that is the case, but I need to know. That said, I likely won't use her if she only checks certain airlines, since I will be left doing all the rest of the work!

I would appreciate some guidance from more experienced members. I should add that I'm not exactly inexperienced. I've been finding what airlines go where and booking my own travel for years, but have found it increasingly difficult in recent years as the websites have become less transparent about fare codes and just don't offer the choice of piecing things together as I used to be able to do.

Thanks very much for your help!

Kind regards,
Jane
 
Jun 30, 2017
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#2
The United "all search options" booking page allows you to choose variable dates and see how a date change of even one day can change the fare by as much as $600 for a BOS/VIE flight. You can also experiment with "multi-city" and look at different individual flight legs and see how the fare is impacted.
 

Neil Maley

Moderator
Staff Member
Advocate
Dec 27, 2014
13,779
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www.promalvacations.com
#3
The information you are asking is not easy to answer. The truth is airfares are very expensive to Europe this summer, no ifs and or buts. You are asking for a very time consuming job by trying to ask agents to find out which pieces of an itinerary as driving up the cost of the air. You may be frustrating the agents by what you are demanding.

Are you seeing significant savings playing with various gateways? Probably not so the best way to get your best price is to

1. Find a flight with the least amount of connections
2. Find a flight with at least 2 hours, preferably 3 hours, in between connections so you don’t risk missing a connection and rebooking because of inadequate time in between. (usually the shorter the connection the cheaper the fare but it could cost you more in the long run if you miss your connection)
3. Find flights that can be booked on one PNR and not pieced together so if you miss your connection, the airline is responsible for getting you on the next flight, you aren’t stuck buying new tickets because you booked a separate ticket to save $50.

Book wisely, not the cheapest way or whatever you try to do to save a few dollars could haunt you later.
 

AMA

Verified Member
Dec 11, 2014
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#4
I just did a search on Kayak for Boston>Budapest, leaving August 7 and returning August 22. Fares are around $1100 which is not that expensive. The train from Budapest to Vienna takes under three hours, so you might consider that option.
 
Likes: jsn55
May 16, 2018
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#6
Thanks to all for replying. AMA, to the flight to Budapest I would need to add 4 train fares (round-trip) plus transport to and from the stations each way with luggage. I will do the math, but I do not believe it will end up being cheaper than flying into Vienna directly. Weihlac, I have been to the United site, and found the issues I described in my original post, but will take another look. I can easily see which days are better, but can't see more than that.

To NEIL Maley: First, thanks for your detailed response. Yes, I am looking for the fewest connections, and for long enough connection times--I've traveled a lot over the years and understand that need. I would think the agents would too, but several offered me connections of just over an hour after an international flight, which I found risky. And yes, I want the entire itinerary on one ticket for just the reason you mentioned.

Secondly, I feel the need to point out that you have made some assumptions about me that are not accurate. I have not "demanded" anything of any travel agents, nor have I asked them to find out which pieces of an itinerary drive up the prices. I simply gave the agents dates (with wiggle room) and left it at that. I assumed that as professional agents they would naturally be able to put together such a simple round-trip itinerary.

The travel agents who responded to me quoted fares between $1300-1600, which was disappointing as these fares were higher than most airline websites. The one agent who had a lower fare ($1200) said it was a "contracted one" and just recently wrote back to explain what that means. She said she first checks the contracted airlines since they pay her commission but will check the other airlines on their websites and also check Google flights for $79 per person ($316). She stated that it would be $79 per person even though the itinerary/ticket is the same for all 4.

She offered to check one airline I inquired about (on the airline's website), but then stated the trip couldn't be done without an overnight stay in the connecting city. When I checked the itinerary myself I found that this was not true.

So far, the only way that I have succeeded in getting a better fare by actually breaking down the legs and choosing the appropriate fare codes was with an airline telephone agent. Perhaps this is the answer this time around. I will call the airlines directly, spend the time on hold, and ask the phone agents for their help. I'll let you know how it turns out!

Thank you again for your time and your thoughts. Everyone's continued input and ideas are welcome and appreciated.
 
Mar 17, 2015
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#7
Have you tried google flights - to search, and only to search. I am showing fares BOS to BUD for less than 800 per person depending on dates. It is a super easy train ride to Vienna. You do have to double check with the airlines own websites, but it has not been the click bait that other websites have been.
 
May 16, 2018
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#8
Hello again Weihlac, I just went back to the United site to use the "all search options" again that you had suggested. The prices are $1681 and up, which is higher than average, and which makes me wonder if there is perhaps a surcharge for booking other airlines besides United on the United site. For example, the Swiss Air flight on the United search is $300+ more than on the Swiss Air website.

I guess I'm not sure what you are wanting me to see on the United site. Yes, it's true that you can see how the prices differ from day to day--most sites show this--but I am unclear as to how this is helpful, since the prices seem way off the mark in general. Thanks again for your help.
 

Neil Maley

Moderator
Staff Member
Advocate
Dec 27, 2014
13,779
13,220
113
New York
www.promalvacations.com
#9
Thanks to all for replying. AMA, to the flight to Budapest I would need to add 4 train fares (round-trip) plus transport to and from the stations each way with luggage. I will do the math, but I do not believe it will end up being cheaper than flying into Vienna directly. Weihlac, I have been to the United site, and found the issues I described in my original post, but will take another look. I can easily see which days are better, but can't see more than that.

To NEIL Maley: First, thanks for your detailed response. Yes, I am looking for the fewest connections, and for long enough connection times--I've traveled a lot over the years and understand that need. I would think the agents would too, but several offered me connections of just over an hour after an international flight, which I found risky. And yes, I want the entire itinerary on one ticket for just the reason you mentioned.

Secondly, I feel the need to point out that you have made some assumptions about me that are not accurate. I have not "demanded" anything of any travel agents, nor have I asked them to find out which pieces of an itinerary drive up the prices. I simply gave the agents dates (with wiggle room) and left it at that. I assumed that as professional agents they would naturally be able to put together such a simple round-trip itinerary.

The travel agents who responded to me quoted fares between $1300-1600, which was disappointing as these fares were higher than most airline websites. The one agent who had a lower fare ($1200) said it was a "contracted one" and just recently wrote back to explain what that means. She said she first checks the contracted airlines since they pay her commission but will check the other airlines on their websites and also check Google flights for $79 per person ($316). She stated that it would be $79 per person even though the itinerary/ticket is the same for all 4.

She offered to check one airline I inquired about (on the airline's website), but then stated the trip couldn't be done without an overnight stay in the connecting city. When I checked the itinerary myself I found that this was not true.

So far, the only way that I have succeeded in getting a better fare by actually breaking down the legs and choosing the appropriate fare codes was with an airline telephone agent. Perhaps this is the answer this time around. I will call the airlines directly, spend the time on hold, and ask the phone agents for their help. I'll let you know how it turns out!

Thank you again for your time and your thoughts. Everyone's continued input and ideas are welcome and appreciated.
I apologize if I misunderstood what you were asking the agents you spoke to - I based in on this statement -" The individual websites of the airlines are equally frustrating, since I cannot check which legs of the trip are driving up the price and break it out. When I try it as a multi-city search the price gets astronomical for the same reason--can't see which flights are cheapest."

I assumed from that statement you wanted an agent to find out which leg was costing more.

They are most likely checking with airline consolidators. I find they rarely have better prices for air unless you are flying business or first class. Otherwise, booking directly with an airline is usually the cheapest way to go. Once in a blue moon I find cheap seats with a consolidator.

Agents usually have to charge for their services when booking air only because 95% of the time we aren't paid commissions. Some agencies are higher than others. I agree with you that a per person fee is ridiculous - you are booking one ticket for everyone, there is no extra work involved, I would expect a ticket fee not per person. However if an agent is using Google flights, you don't need them - you can do it yourself and save the $79 pp.

You have a good idea of what to look out for - I'm sure you can do better by yourself. When are you actually traveling? You get the best pricing booking early - 6 months or more out. I do not find good prices when someone is traveling earlier than that.
 
Mar 17, 2015
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#10
Since there are 4 of you, and you will have luggage, why don't you arrange a private van transfer from Budapest to Vienna. With the under 1k fare per person, the transfer would run you maybe around $300 for all 4. And yes, do not pay a TA to check google flights, do it yourself @ 79 per person. If you are locked into specific dates, this may be an issue in finding the best price, but sometimes going or coming back a day or two earlier/later can make up a big difference in your fare.

From a quick search, you might try Lufthansa, they have prices at about 1k per person BOS to VIE depending on dates you want this summer.
 

jsn55

Verified Member
Dec 26, 2014
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#12
Jane, I have nothing to add except empathy. Putting a trip together as you're attempting is absolutely beyond frustrating. Neither the airlines' websites or dealing with a real TA is very effective. Thank goodness you know not to book with an online booking service. The only easy way to book travel these days is to book whatever you want and not care about the price. This option is not available to most of us!

The most productive, issue-free approach is to book the four of you into a European city, nonstop. Stay overnight (or two) at a hotel with good public transit into the area you might want to spend some time in. Fly out to Vienna (a most magical city) non-stop on a separate booking. I've been booking Virgin-Atlantic to London for a couple of nights and then on to the city of our choice with a totally separate res. It's better than losing your mind trying to make things work; there are just too many variables. But I understand that not everyone has a "couple of days" on each end of the trip to plan this way (I am grateful to be self-employed). Know you have my sympathy and perhaps I've given you some food for thought.
 
May 16, 2018
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#13
Thanks so much to all of you! I really appreciate the time and all of these thoughtful responses and interesting ideas.

Neil, thanks for clarifying your message and also how things work. I can see how you misunderstood me! I haven't used a travel agent in ages, so I appreciate the information as to how things work nowadays. But I am in agreement that it seems ridiculous to charge per person when all 4 tickets are on the same reservation with identical itinerary.

Funny thing is, I am so pressed for time right now that I would happily pay $79 if an agent would really do the leg work and also find fares that are better than the ones I can find myself, either through their expertise and experience or through their agreements with the airlines. When you are short on time, searching for airfares, which used to be kind of fun, starts to feel like a real chore.

Jsn55, thanks for your empathy! I thought about your approach, but it's harder to keep the price down with 4 people when booking a hotel in Europe. We can get our whole family into one hotel room in the US but in London, for example, we never were allowed to book 4 people into one room unless it was a very expensive suite. They even refused when my kids were babies! They wanted my husband and one baby in one room and me with the other in another room. We ended up using Amex points converted to hotel points to get a suite that would otherwise have been unaffordable, and that "suite" was just the same size as a small hotel room, with no space even for an extra cot. We laughed so hard when we saw the "suite." Anyway, I will check, since it's been a while since I looked for a hotel in London or elsewhere in Europe. We might be able to do this in one direction. Thanks for the suggestion.
 

Neil Maley

Moderator
Staff Member
Advocate
Dec 27, 2014
13,779
13,220
113
New York
www.promalvacations.com
#14
Sometimes we can’t find lower fares than a consumer can find online. I tell this to people all the time. Very often we see the same published fares you see- rarely do we see anything better. There are no secrets to booking air that a travel agent has that you don’t unless we happen to have a consolidator that happens to have a good price. Consolidators might have better prices for business or first class seats but not usually economy. I can count on two hands how many times I’ve found lower prices from a consolidator than I could directly through the airline.
 
Jul 27, 2016
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#15
The best engine I've found for this sort of flight hunting is ITA Matrix (matrix.itasoftware.com). They were bought by Google a few years ago, and I think it's their tech that underlies Google Flights, but the old ITA interface is very helpful to a power user. Note that you can't book tickets through them, but it can give you a detailed output of flights and fare codes, so a TA can typically book it from that info.

FWIW, the best I could find for a two-week stay, leaving 7/25 or thereafter, would be $864 on Aer Lingus via Dublin, leaving 8/12 and returning 8/27.
 
May 16, 2018
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#16
Hello Just a Guy, thanks for checking. Unfortunately I need to return around 10 days earlier than the 27th and so I'm in the thick of the high season prices. I can't find anything near $864 on Aer Lingus with an earlier return date, but I'll keep checking.

By the way, 2 of the travelers are students, and so it occurred to me to look at student fares as well, since some student agencies will book the adult fares on the same reservation. What I discovered is that the student fares are not cheaper--not even a little-- which begs the question of why anyone would book with these agencies.
 
May 16, 2018
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#18
That's interesting. I don't consider myself a "senior" but I do have the AARP card. Is there some special way to access the senior fares? On the airline sites, it just has categories for adults and children.
 

Neil Maley

Moderator
Staff Member
Advocate
Dec 27, 2014
13,779
13,220
113
New York
www.promalvacations.com
#19
That's interesting. I don't consider myself a "senior" but I do have the AARP card. Is there some special way to access the senior fares? On the airline sites, it just has categories for adults and children.
The only one that I ever see them on on occasion is Southwest and they are always higher than the adult fare because they are refundable.
 
Likes: Nancy
May 16, 2018
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#20
Well, thanks to everyone. We are definitely going to make this trip, and it's going to cost a lot in airfares, and so I've made some decisions:

1. I'm not flying into a different city and then taking train or van to Vienna unless it's going to save at least $250-300 per ticket. I might consider it on the way home, but on the way in, after the overnight flight and connection, I just want to arrive in the city without more effort. The dollars saved would have to be significant to budge me on this since we are already paying so much.

2. I'm going to call the airlines that have the best and easiest routings directly and see if they can select legs with cheaper fare codes and keep it on one reservation. The travel agent didn't do this, but one of the airline phone reps was happy to do it, so I've resolved myself to spending some time on hold.

3. Since the airfares will be very expensive for us, and since I had a health scare last year (I'm completely well now but it was sobering), I'm getting travel insurance that will include cancel for any reason, pre-existing medical conditions, etc. A quick look at the comparison sites showed that soup-to-nuts insurance (I just checked just about everything to see the highest) is around $300-$350 for the 4 of us. It's not cheap, but we are already paying $4500-5000 for airfares so it would seem ridiculous to quibble over another $300. I also likely don't need to check every box--just was curious.
Suggestions are welcome as I have never bought travel insurance before. I'm thinking there's a forum for insurance?!
 
Likes: Nancy