The Latest Way to Save on Airfare: Crowdsourcing

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First there were the airlines' websites, then cheap airfare sites that aggregated those. Those sites became more useful over time, but something new is even more flexible: a competitive, human-powered search called FlightFox.

Want to save some money on your next travel plans? A new service called FlightFox is taking off, and it’s promising to land you satisfying savings.

OK, the puns are a bit obvious, but so is this Australian startup’s appeal: For $29, you can potentially save hundreds. Your money becomes the prize in a fight between amateur online travel agents, called “flight hackers.”

Why is this any better than services like Kayak, Hipmunk, or Google Flights? Because instead of relying on a computer, you have multiple human experts competing for your flat finder’s fee, which is “100-percent refundable if you’re not satisfied,” according to the site’s front page. And you can name specific demands that a computer doesn’t know how to check, or that travel novices don’t know how to include in their online search.

For example, one user requested three business seats from Milwaukee  to Santa Ana, Calif., along with this detailed list…

2 adults 1 child (3 years), as few connections as possible, willing to fly from ORD, morning flights preferred, but not too early, none before 6am. I have 150K frequent flyer miles on United that can be spent for either tickets or upgrades. Business/first class preferred (tall people) but will accept economy plus or guaranteed exit row/bulkhead.

When I checked, they had so far received two flight recommendations. One offer was $311. The other $1,163.

“That’s ridiculous – $1,163?” I asked myself. “That must be fake, just to make the $311 offer look like a really good deal.”

I guess I don’t fly enough. I opened up the three travel sites mentioned earlier and plugged in the request myself. The best fares I got for business class on the requested dates were $1,164 on Kayak and $1,163 on Hipmunk. Google Flights couldn’t even search that far ahead.

So that $29 fee was saving this family $2,500 on a flight. This wasn’t the only case of huge savings – here’s Miami to Beijing for almost $2,300 off.

The site claims an average savings of $368 per flight. But looking at the results, that “average” seems inflated by a handful of  really great deals like the two I just mentioned. Still, my unscientific perusal indicates it’s often worth the fee. In particular, trips within one country seem to save less. I spotted a Norway flight from Stavanger to Oslo for $832, a savings of…zero dollars when compared to the traditional travel sites. Here are some other same-country savings samples…

  • Sao Paolo to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) – $177
  • Jacksonville to Chicago – $57
  • New York to Orlando – none
  • Austin to Los Angeles – $19

From this, I concluded FlightFox is so far geared toward international flights. Co-founders Lauren McLeon and Todd Sullivan said as much in a January interview: “We are targeting international and long haul flights, so $30 on top of that isn’t much.”

By the way, you can put in a request without paying the $29 finder’s fee, but I didn’t see any freebie requests that got flight suggestions. Looks like flight hackers don’t do charity.

They’re already accepting applications for more travel experts, although I have no idea what qualifies you. (You click apply to be a flight hacker and answer this question: “Describe a great flight you hacked…”)

So if you know the ins-and-outs of airlines, this might be some quick cash. And they probably need a lot of help – the founding duo is set to meet with investors from New York and Silicon Valley in April . They’re going to need a bunch more flight hackers to scale the site up for a bigger American audience.

What about travel agents?

The thing I found fascinating about this new service is that it represents a full circle from the old days. Pre-Internet, finding the best deal on a flight meant going to a traditional travel agent. Then the Web took the work with DIY online flight searching.  Now we’re apparently supposed to stick with the Web, but go back to paying humans for help.

Travel agents charge fees close to those charged by FlightFox, but do this type of work full-time and have the tools and experience to do it well. So the question becomes which is better – a crowdsource website like FlightFox or a traditional travel agent? Money Talks founder Stacy Johnson weighed in on the side of travel agents in a post called 4 Reasons I’m Done Booking Online Flights.

Which flight plan sounds better to you: agents, DIY, or FlightFox? Let us hear from you below or on our Facebook page.  You’ll find other ways to save in 7 Steps to Cheaper Airfares.

Stacy Johnson

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