Consumer Reports rates travel booking sites

Vaunted consumer publication Consumer Reports recently researched nine different booking websites to determine which offered the cheapest non-stop air fares and found that all sites are not created equal.

The publication spent almost two weeks looking for the cheapest nonstop airfares on five busy domestic routes using nine popular sites: CheapOair, Expedia, Google Flights, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor.

Ironically, CheapOair delivered the highest average fares and also failed to provide a single lowest fare among the five routes in CR's research, the organization said in a news release detailing the results.

“We recommend doing multiple searches over multiple days to increase your chances of finding the lowest fare,” Mandy Walker, a CR senior editor, said. “You will notice that persistence pays off in the quest for the best price on travel booking sites.”

As savvy travelers already know, fares for the same route at the same time can vary over different days. Accordingly, passengers should search for flights multiple times and over multiple days to increase their chances of finding the lowest fare, the publication recommended.

Consumer Reports investigated the online booking sites in conjunction with a survey it compiled detailing its subscribers’ attitudes toward air travel and their responses to questions about 13 U.S. airlines.

The survey included more than 20,000 subscribers reporting on their most recent experience on a domestic, nonstop flight between the summers of 2014 and 2015. It focused on the categories of legroom, seat width and comfort, room for carry-on bags, cabin and restroom cleanliness, check-in ease, service from airline staff, food/refreshments, in-flight entertainment, and the lack of hidden fees or “à la carte charges” as they are referred to by the airline industry.

“It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when flying was fun, even glamorous, but today’s fliers face a labyrinth of fees and lackluster services.” Walker said.

CR’s survey found what many similar surveys, including J.D. Power and the Skytrax World Airline Awards, have also concluded: there’s not much to enjoy about air travel in the U.S.

“Economy seats are cramped, flights are packed, and passengers pay an ever-expanding number of fees for things that used to be free,” Consumer Reports said of its latest investigation and airline ratings survey.

The publication ranked the airlines based on the survey results and found only a handful of the carriers to be well-regarded; the rest, according to the survey respondents, were less than desirable.

Virgin America Airbus departs Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
Virgin America fligt departs SEA
Four airlines – two low-cost carriers and two traditional carriers – topped CR’s coach/economy ratings. JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), Southwest (NYSE:LUV), Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA) and Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) all earned better than average marks for ease of check-in, and the service received from airline staff.

However, no airline’s coach/economy class received a top mark for any of the attributes Consumer Reports measured. With the exception of JetBlue, the other 12 carriers in CR’s coach class ratings received low marks for legroom, and seat width & comfort.

The three legacy U.S. carriers – Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) and United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) – were rated middling-to-poor on all attributes for their coach/economy service, according to the publication. All 13 airlines included in CR’s ratings were also rated “worse than average” or “far worse than average” for food and refreshments among coach/economy passengers.

Virgin America scored well among first/business class passengers, and was followed closely by Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA) and Alaska. While Virgin got top marks across the board, all three carriers rated above average or better on all attributes measured by the survey, with the sole exception a middling rating given to Alaska’s in-flight entertainment.

First/business class passengers indicated that they were at least fairly well satisfied with all seven airlines that offered first or business class, though United and American were at the bottom of CR’s ratings. Both carriers scored below average with regard to cabin and restroom cleanliness, food and refreshments, and in-flight

The flight and fare comparison appears in the October issue of Consumer Reports and is available free online at Both iterations also offer more detailed information about the air travel industry timeline throughout the decades, and additional tips for reducing the stress of flying.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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