Can Flight Search Be Improved? Three Innovative Sites That Say Yes

I'm an avid user of consumer flight-search tools. I always have one or two trips I'm planning at any given time. I use a handful of flight search engines on a daily basis, always checking fares at least once or twice a day (you'd be surprised how quickly options and fares move around). I'm also a general believer that flight search options out there are pretty good. Especially for domestic travel, it's not hard to quickly know what is available and for how much. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement or that some folks aren't doing some interesting things. I wanted to draw your attention to a few innovations in flight search that I think are poised to become mainstream.  [more]
Now I realize some of these aren't brand new. I will highlight them still because while they are ahead of their time, I believe their features are poised to become mainstream. First, the baseline. The best mass-market search tool today is Yes, I've worked there, so I'm biased. But I'm not the only one who feels this way. In fact, if you audit innovation in flight search, I think you'll find that most of the features (e.g. filters, searching multiple sources, sliders for selecting times, etc.) started at Kayak and became ubiquitous. Kayak is my first stop for flight search and has pretty much everything I want.That being said, here are three flight search sites and features that I also find quite useful:1) Hipmunk and the Agony MeterLaunched just last week, Hipmunk is the latest to the game of flight search engines. For those of us long familiar with flight search tools, their search result page might look similar to ITA Software's QPX Matrix results. But QPX has never been able to book tickets, so was never more than a good search-only tool. Kudos to Hipmunk for recognizing the need and bringing it to the market as a fully functional purchasing tool via click-through to Orbitz.But the best part of Hipmunk is not the display. It is the Agony sorting. Hipmunk's value add is that they filter out all the results that you'd never choose because they are simply more expensive versions of other results, or less attractive schedules for the same price and airline. For example, they show a United non-stop, but filter out the Continental and US Airways code-shared version which are both available at a higher price. Similarly, they show a flight with a stopover in Houston, but don't show 2 other flights that have the same route but earlier first legs requiring huge layovers. I'd never book one of those (who wants a 5 hour layover when a 2 hour one is available at the same price?), so best not show them to me. And in case you're worried about missing out, you can easily toggle them on and off, they just default to off.Hipmunk has a ways to go to build out its parity feature set (e.g. flexible dates, more sources of fares, etc.) but it's definitely a welcome addition to my search site portfolio.(Note: In full disclosure, Hipmunk and FlightCaster share an investor in Y Combinator)2) InsideTrip's Flight Quality & Total Cost of TripI've written frequently about InsideTrip because I think it's a window into the imaginary world where we purchase tickets based on something other than schedule and price. Their Flight Quality dashboard with 12 inputs is a welcome relief to comparing flights and you see other sites have started to incorporate pieces of it, like red-eyes, turboprops, short layovers, and on-time stats. The additional features of fleet age, legroom, load factor, and gate location are neat things to use as points of comparison also. Look for the more salient data points to continue to be integrated across the web.Their "Total Cost of Trip" calculator adds on baggage and drink fees. I think the drink fee portion is a bit of a gimmick, but the baggage fees do help since it's best to include them in the comparison. Note though that Kayak (and others) also do this.I think there's a big risk when adding so much data into flight search -- namely that it becomes way too complicated (See Scott Adam's blog post on that here). But in general I feel that there are plenty of "simpler" sites to use if you don't care about getting the best option or lowest price. For savvy travelers (like us), more data in an elegant way is often an upgrade.3) Yapta's Fare TrackerFare tracking and comparisons have been all the rage lately and many sites now have fare calendars to tell you when you should fly as well as fare trackers telling you if the fare is trending up or down (not to mention Bing/Farecast's prediction). While these data sets are interesting, I never find them super-helpful. Why? Because I don't care what the lowest fare is on the route I'm traveling. It is almost always a 6am departure or a red-eye and almost aways has a stop-over in an undesirable city. Tracking the trend of that "lowest fare" is useless to me. As is seeing how that fare varies whether I fly on Tue or Wed. What I want is to see if the 10am non-stop departure varies day-to-day, and there's no good way to do that yet.Part of the problem is that most sites get their flight intelligence from actual fare searches that other people do. They cache the data and then use it to show me what other searched fares are. They're not actually instigating searches on their own just to populate the calendar or trend map for me (hence you sometimes see blank spots). They also don't have a good way to know which flight I want, so using that data is hard. Perhaps Google and ITA together can solve this problem since the cost of instigating searches would no longer be a barrier to having a complete and valuable dataset on fare history.Yapta doesn't have a calendar, or a trend tracker -- But they will track the fare on specific flights you select and send you e-mails when the fares change. This is super-helpful because it enables me to find the right time to book my fare. So whenever I know I'm going somewhere, I always go to Yapta and track the specific flights I would like to take, as opposed to tracking the lowest fare on the route like all the other sites. Mind you I'm a pretty price sensitive traveler -- I'm not going to pay a ton more for a better flight, but I am willing to pay a few dollars more for a far more attractive time or routing, and that's almost always lost in the current fare trackers.I often find that even if the "lowest fare" doesn't go down, I can get some of the more convenient flights to price match the lowest. To me, that's a big win. I'd just as rather get a much better flight for the lowest fare than save $50 on a crappy one.There are plenty of tools out there, with new ones coming along all the time as the OTA's make it easier to access their fare search results through an API. This has caused speedy innovation which is always good to spur the industry forward. While I don't see flight search technology changing any fundamentals in the short term, it will continue to refine itself to provide for a better user experience. And with Google now potentially in the game, that innovation cycle sure isn't getting any longer, to our benefit no doubt.
Evan Konwiser is co-founder of FlightCaster. These thoughts are excerpted with permission from his blog.