The Airfare Flash Deal Face-off: Airfarewatchdog vs. The FlightDeal

NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Call it the face-off of the flash deal airfare sites: the 800-pound gorilla is AirfareWatchdog.com, the upstart is TheFlightDeal.com and then there are new kids such as FareDealAlert.com. All exist to scratch this itch: you live in, say, Phoenix, you have a vacation week to burn and not a lot of cash. And you want to get out of town. On the cheap.

So you head to TheFlightDeal, tab into Phoenix, and - behold - there's a $977 roundtrip, inclusive of taxes, to Bangkok. Fly in November, or after January 10. How about $275 - on United or American - roundtrip to Newark from Phoenix Sky Harbor? Over at Airfarewatchdog.com, flying from Phoenix there is a $98 roundtrip to Burbank - that is, Los Angeles - on Southwest. There's also a $98 roundtrip to Las Vegas on US Airways.

Get the picture? These sites are not where to look if you have to fly home for the holidays with the family in Schenectady. But when you have the itch to get out of town, don't exactly care where, these are the places to look, because they specialize in ferreting out great deals.

(For those other trips with specific destinations, jump to the story's end where a travel blogger reveals what his extensive research uncovered.) 

Read More: Cheap Airfare: What Would You Give Up for a Discount Ticket?

As for the flash deal airfare sites, understand, these are act now or forever hold your peace propositions. TheFightDeal expressly says that if a deal is dated more than two days ago probably it is tough luck, Charlie.

Which is better, TheFlightDeal or AirfareWatchDog? Santa Monica, Calif. travel writer David Yeskel confirmed they both do a good job of finding flight deals. That's key in this niche. A site has to patrol constantly for good deals which - pretty much by definition - will have short shelf lives. When an airline's algorithms tell it it has too much inventory - that is, empty seats - it holds a flash sale; however, in most cases, it doesn't want to too broadly publicize the deal (why give the guy in seat 24D agita by letting him know he overpaid by $300 for his transcon ticket?). The flash deal aggregators are an answer to an airline's prayer, but to succeed, they have to be fast, thorough, and knowledgeable  about where to look. AirfareWatchdog.com and TheFlightDeal.com both do all that.

Yeskel did offer a complaint. TheFlightDeal has cluttered its page with tabs to nowhere, such as a "Bad Deals" tab. Click on it, and the most recent update is March 2013. On AirFareWatchDog, Yeskel pointed to the "Airline Info" tab. Click it and, guess what, there's no information on, say, Lan Chile or Garuda -- that is, carriers with little visibility in the U.S. Instead, you will find links to info on the ten big U.S. carriers and couldn't you have easily found that on your own? "Thin content devalues both these websites," said Yeskel.

TheFareDeal similarly aggregates deals but from fewer cities. No New York, no Los Angeles, no Chicago, no Phoenix. But it does have Charlotte, Minneapolis, Kansas City and more secondary markets. Check out the list. If you live in, say, Detroit, there's a tasty $882 roundtrip to Manila, Philippines, for instance. Said Yeskel: "Sites like that have limited value, only to people who are in particular cities."

Then there are still other options. Thomas Spagnola, an executive with CheapOAir, pointed to his company's site where, he insisted, "a lot" of great deals can be found. He's right. A fast look turned up a $699.70 roundtrip fare - on LOT, the Polish carrier - from Chicago to Budapest. $828 will get you a roundtrip from San Francisco to Manila. One grumble: there's no obvious way under the Today's Flight Deals header to drill down to departure cities that particularly interest you. Still for open-minded fliers, CheapOAir indeed uncovers great deals.

Last cheap flights advice comes from travel blogger Jim Cheney who laboriously sorted through 100 different flight searches on eight different travel websites in a quest for the answer to who really has the cheapest flights. His discoveries will also benefit flash deal hunters. That's despite the fact that Cheney did not include the flash deal sites. But he looked at everybody else, from Hipmunk to Kayak. One startling finding: where you book can make a big difference.

He found one city pair - Mexico City, Mexico, and Reykjavik, Iceland - where the difference between the cheapest and the priciest fare was a jawdropping $2,912. On average, said Cheney, the difference between the lowest and highest fare was $272. That is plenty to make it worthwhile to pick the right flight search tool. When Cheney wants cheap tix, he goes to Momondo.com where, he insisted, he found the cheapest flight or close to 60% of the time and, on average, he said buying there saved $20 per ticket.

Better news: on Momondo there's a tab, Trip Finder, that leads directly to its collection of flash deal fares. With a few clicks, you are served up a banquet of flight deals. $600 to Dublin. $650 to Kiev. $1000 to Dhaka, Bangladesh. $940 to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Chew on that. Kathmandu for Thanksgiving. That just may beat Mom's turkey dinner.

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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