So, you’re looking at buying flights to multiple cities. Maybe you’re trying to transfer through cheaper cities or you’re consolidating multiple legs of your trip into one easy booking step. Regardless, it can be tempting to click that multi-city flight search option to input your different destinations all at once, right? But resist the temptation – I’ll tell you why.
I discovered this because I’m currently researching flights to Belgrade, Serbia. I want to fly out of LAX because it’s cheaper than flying from Seattle. All told, this means I’m going to need to fly from SEA -> LAX -> BEG.
I can either try booking the flights separately:
- SEA -> LAX
- Then LAX -> BEG
Or I can use the “multi-city” feature, which lets me search for and book the entire itinerary all at once:
- SEA -> LAX -> BEG
Which is better?
Let’s start by researching the individual legs of the trip.
First, I found a flight from LAX to BEG that I liked. Check out that price – $335?!
(And note, this is way better than the flights I found from Seattle to Belgrade. We’re talking “saves me over $200” better. Yeah.)
Now that I’ve got a flight I like from LAX to BEG, I need to find a good flight from SEA to LAX. It has to get me there at least 2 hours before 1:07p so I have enough time for my transfer. I don’t want to miss my flight to Belgrade!
Here’s what I found for SEA to LAX:
$77 isn’t bad. I’ve found tickets for $58 before, so I might hold out for a price like that, but these options are pretty decent. That 8 am flight is definitely looking good. (5 am is pushing it, my friends.)
So far, we’re looking at the following:
- 8a to 10:46a: SEA to LAX
- 1:07p to 7:55p: LAX to BEG
That’s a decent itinerary that leaves me enough time to transfer planes. It’s way better than the $500-ish flight from Seattle that was 40 hours (!!!) of travel. And the theoretical cost of this itinerary (provided no airlines tack on weird fees for me using a credit card), is $335 + $77 = $412 dollars. Not bad at all!
And, sure, you can get roundtrip European tickets for this price, but, eh, what are you going to do? Airlines like to charge more for one-way tickets because they know they can. So, I’m pretty happy with this.
At this point I was curious, though: could a multi-city flight search do better, and save me the trouble of booking two flights separately?
Here’s what turns up:
That’s $82 more per ticket than booking them separately!
My next thought was that I might just be looking at the wrong flights. Maybe the search results pushed down the options I was looking at originally. After all, I don’t see my original itinerary on here – the one with the 8a Seattle departure, followed by the 1:07p Los Angeles departure.
So, I used the sliders on the left-hand side to filter the results, trying to find itinerary I put together myself. Here’s what happened:
No matching flights? You’ve got to be kidding me. I saw with my own two eyes that this itinerary exists. I could switch browser tabs and buy it right now!
So, for whatever reason, Kayak does two things when you use a multi-city flight search:
- They limit the kinds of flights that get bundled together.
- And then the itineraries themselves are more expensive.
It’s unclear whether this greater expense is due to fees that Kayak is tacking on for the “convenience” of a multi-city flight search or due to the limited flight options in the bundles they’re using.
Either way, the consensus is this: using multi-city flight search to book your flights is a total rip-off. You’re much, much better off booking the flights separately. All told, booking these flights separately will save us $164 for two people. That’s not petty cash right there – that’s several nights of accommodations, a few nice dinners, a flight or a few trains between cities… that’s a big deal!
And I’m not the first one to discover this: Mike Masnick at TechDirt reached the same conclusion when he found that using the multi-city flight search feature on Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak, and Travelocity was at least $150 more expensive compared to putting together itineraries himself.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge there are some downsides to booking flights separately:
- Your connecting flight could get booked: There’s the possibility (however small) that the flight you need to make your connection somehow gets booked as you’re purchasing your flights. However, I’ve done this many times and I’ve never, ever had this happen. Sometimes I even wait to book my connecting flight in the hopes that the price goes down, so – it really has never been an issue.
- Your bag won’t get checked through to its destination: When you book tickets separately, your bag generally can’t get checked through to its destination. However, note that many multi-city ticket bundles don’t offer that anyway: carrier rules are complicated, but bags usually only get checked through if you’re using the same airline or partner airlines – they must have what’s called an “interline” agreement. If you’re using different airlines, often you’d have to pick up your bag and re-check it anyway.
- Flight delays can screw you over: If your first flight is super-delayed, you could miss your second flight – they won’t hold the plane for you. Purchasing bundled tickets on the same airline or partner airlines means they’ll sometimes hold the connecting plane. You can avoid this as much as possible by building enough of a layover into your itinerary – I prefer at least 2 hours – but you sometimes hear 7-hour delay horror stories. If that happens, chances are you’ll be booking a new flight.
- Changes and cancellations will cost more: If you need to change or cancel your trip, you’ll have to pay separate change/cancel fees for each separate ticket you purchased that needs to be changed.
If you’re seriously worried about flight delays, changes, or cancellations, you can always book travel insurance for your trip. However, bear in mind that over the course of multiple trips you’re likely to spend more money on travel insurance than you will on a flight change fee during the single exceptional occasion when something goes wrong!
So, lesson learned: this is why you should never use multi-city flight search. The benefits definitely outweigh the risks: Book those flights separately and give yourself a pat on the back – think of all the money you just saved!