By Gary Gately SideStep promises relief for those of us tired of surfing the ever-expanding array of Web sites claiming to have the best travel deals. It's like an online shopping bot for airfares, hotel rooms, and rental cars. Punch in your destination, and SideStep searches travel providers' sites for the best prices.
The idea of pulling together the Web's best deals in one place has been enough to propel the small, private Northern California company that runs the site into profitability. While that's a notable achievement for a Web startup and good news for investors, my concern as a consumer is whether it can deliver on its promise.
DOWNLOAD TIME.I put SideStep's promise to the test by comparing airfares for five different weekend trips in late August. I was flexible, as leisure travelers often are, about what time of day I traveled, but I did search for direct flights only. Before using SideStep, I had to download free software that pulls airfares directly from other travel sites, including those of airlines and also major online agencies like Orbitz and Travelocity.
The download was quick and painless, and SideStep is easy to use. It can also run alongside other travel sites, allowing for immediate direct price comparisons. A big bonus: It offers fares from Southwest Airlines, which doesn't do business with the major Web travel agencies.
SURF 'N' SAVE. SideStep certainly offers competitive fares and some real bargain, and it should be a part of any search for the best deals. But comparison shopping proves anew that there's no one-stop shopping for the best bargains -- not to mention that a bit of surfing can save you a bundle. SideStep was cheaper than both Expedia and Orbitz for two of the five trips and offered the same fares as Expedia on two. Expedia was cheapest of the three once, and Orbitz never offered the best deals. But on three trips, individual airlines' sites beat SideStep, Expedia, and Orbitz.
When SideStep delivered the cheapest price among online travel agents, the differences were usually pretty small -- about $5. It did best on a trip from Philadelphia to Chicago. SideStep's $169.50 nonstop roundtrip fare on American Trans Air beat Expedia's lowest-priced nonstop flight, aboard American Trans, by $26 -- a 16% difference. But that big gap was the exception, not the rule.
When airlines' sites were the cheapest, it was usually by more than just a few dollars. A Fort Lauderdale-New York jaunt that would have cost $155 on either SideStep or Expedia and $160 on Orbitz could have been had for a cost $138 if it were booked on either Spirit or JetBlue's sites. Southwest.com offered a Baltimore-New Orleans run for $147 that would have cost $178 online -- for the same flights.
READY TO BUY. SideStep, which also offers hotel and rental-car searching, says it scours more than 130 Web sites for the best deals from 585 airlines, 40,000 hotels, and 2,800 rental-car locations worldwide. When you're ready to purchase, SideStep takes you to the airline, hotel, or car-rental sites, so you buy directly from the supplier or even from an independent travel agency if that's the cheapest way. But, as our test demonstrates, SideStep won't necessarily find the best deals offered on an individual company's site.
Based on my experiment, it seems the best way to use SideStep is as a screener. It can help you make a reasonable guess at which airline will be cheapest. Then you should go to that airline's own site and see if they'll sell you a ticket at an even lower price. Gately writes about travel from Baltimore