The only people I know who visit high-street travel agents are eightysomethings and skinflints keen to exploit a 'won't-be-beaten-on-price' guarantee after finding a hot online deal. Small wonder; an agent charges a service fee and tries to maximise the cost while tapping the same websites as everyone else - only secretively, in a magisterial manner, from behind a desk.
The question is which 'farefinder' site among the swelling ranks delivers the best price. In the ferociously competitive budget-flight climate stirred up by the likes of AirAsia, there must be some stunning bargains around. To test the market, Technopedia has staged a farefinder shootout.
The target flight: a non-stop, one-way trip from Hong Kong to the capital of cool and freezing fog, London, on January 1, 2009. The websites: Kayak, SideStep, Mobissimo, Farecast, Expedia, Zuji and Hong Kong Priceline. Hotwire does not make the cut since, instead of offering one-way flights, it merely steers the visitor to Expedia.
If I were running an eye-candy contest, with its feel-good orange livery, Mobissimo would clearly beat its rivals. Just as its name trips off the tongue, Mobissimo runs beautifully, all simplicity and elegance. I can imagine the least techy people I know using it happily. If only it were as cheap as it is nifty. The price it comes up with for the flight is US$575.37 (Air New Zealand; depart: 8.15am, arrive: 1.35pm).
Expedia beats that with a quote of US$569 (Air New Zealand; depart: 8.45am, arrive: 2.35pm). Not bad.
Dubbed 'the Google of travel' by the tightwad's bible, Kiplinger, Kayak marginally undercuts that figure with a quote of US$564 (Air New Zealand; depart 8.45am, arrive: 2.35pm). SideStep gives an identical price, airline and time. With Farecast, the airline and times are the same but the price is just a shade lower, at US$559.
That kind of saving excites me about as much as the spam I get offering bodily 'enhancements', big-brand bag replicas and fake university degrees. But there is hope in the shape of the winner, or rather winners, of my shootout, which are: Zuji.com.hk and Priceline.com.hk, both of which offer the 8.15am Air New Zealand flight at HK$3,580 (US$459) plus taxes - a true hot deal that blows the opposition away.
And yet that quote is not quite top dollar. Using www.airnewzealand.com.hk, search-engine optimisation expert Neerav Bhatt (www.roadlesstravelled.com.au) digs up a still cheaper quote: US$444 plus taxes.
The message is clear: when thinking global, click local. Take a regional slant on your surfing.
That tactic makes even more sense because, as Bhatt points out, Hong Kong customers can do the transaction in local dollars, which stops your credit card being hit with a foreign-currency fee.
True bang for your buck.