One of my favourite games, when I get to play it, is ' Bartok
' - a Nomic
-like card game where you
start with an initial set of rules (similar to the popular card game 'Uno') and
each time someone wins they get to add a new rule and another round is played.
After a number of rounds, remembering what rules are in play, and what you have
to do to obey them at any one time, can be an interesting challenge. I usually
don't play with the question rule ("asking any question is illegal") because it
makes the game a silent, tense affair.
Next up the scale, then, is "Mao", where one person decides a secret set of
rules that no-one else knows. Players try playing and are told whether their
play is allowed or not, and they have to try and work out the rules. Of
course, not telling the other people what you've worked out is a standard way
of getting ahead in the game. I like Mao less than I like the question rule,
because it's all about trying to work out everything in your head and saying
anything is a distraction. And, as the name implies, throwing in one or two
nonsensical or counter-intuitive rules (e.g. "it is illegal for someone to play
a jack and not immediately play another legal card") is just part of the fun.
So I was somewhat disturbed to realise, in trying to book international flights
recently, that I was in the middle of a game of Mao without realising it.
Airlines have an extremely complex, ever changing, and sometimes completely
bizarre rules about what flights are offered and how much they cost. Then
each of the many flight searchers - Zuji, Skyscanner, Expedia, Lastminute, etc
- has their own way of combining these options. Seemingly sensible outward
journeys will be combined with ludicrously long returns; prices will suddenly
seem to jump up for no given reason, and route options you'd think were right
there - indeed, that you can easily prove exist with other queries - are
The nonsensical rules I've discovered so far are:
- Return fares are usually cheaper than two single fares, for no reason
that I can comprehend. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence on the net that
in many cases it is cheaper to buy a return flight and then simply not show
up for the return leg than it is to buy a one-way ticket for the same flight.
This makes no economic sense to me.
- Airlines frequently allow an extra leg for free. I once had a holiday of
three days visiting friends in Sweden with a fourteen day stopover in London
to actually do the work that was the primary focus of my journey, for exactly
the same flight cost as flying to London.
And then there's the misinformation:
- Some sites will blatantly lie about how many stops a flight have if the
flight code is the same. A flight saying no stops from SYD to DXB often
actually includes landing in BKK, despite the fact that other flights from
SYD to DXB are truly non-stop and are three hours quicker. Other sites will
be truthful about this.
- Most sites make it difficult or impossible to select options and combine
them even where the same airline offers the flights and they go through the
- Many sites will lie outright about fare availability, despite saying that
they are up to date or availability has been recently checked. This goes both
ways - sites will tell you there are only three or four seats left for weeks
on end, and sites will not tell you there are no economy seats available until
you book (whereupon the price goes up to business class without any
This is not to say that these are the only deficiencies. Most sites make it
difficult to order the flights other than by obvious methods (e.g. price). All
provide no way (that I've seen) to exclude certain airlines or airports, or set
cost or time ranges. Excluding options listed on the fly would also be an
invaluable feature. I'd love to see a site that allowed you to select a range
of seat pitch and width options
. It's sad
to say that the regular things that would make these sites a pleasure to use -
quick load times, low image count, reduced advertising, simple and readable
layout, presenting all useful flight information when requested, being able to
compare different options easily, being presented with useful alternative
information, being able to print or select options for email easily, and search
forms that are easy to fill out from the keyboard alone and change on the fly -
are almost forgotten in the frustrations of these sites.
The site that I have to give most credit to - including a link - is
Skyscanner. It has a good range of
flight options and sort options - total travel time and departure time are
very useful, for example. And then tonight, after I'd near given up in
despair, I found the options on the left-hand side that I'd ignored, which
allowed you to set a maximum journey time, remove airlines, and (most
importantly) choose an outgoing and return flight in separate lists. If only
I'd spotted that yesterday!
They still need flight details expanding on the page, the ability to limit
flight selection by price, and to realise that for some routes - e.g. CBR to
just about anywhere - you're going to have to pull together a couple of
separate flight options rather than only go with carriers who fly the whole distance or with code-shares.
And still, I had more success with a travel agent - in fifteen minutes she
could find all the options, try every possible combination out, eliminate
the obvious wrong ones, and present me with a simple list of the best options
available - including a 'Y' journey where we go to one destination and return
from another nearby. And at a competitive rate, too.