Farecast, a Web site that uses science to find air deals, has launched new features that one analyst called "a very big leap for consumers" -- with a caveat.
Using the key feature, Fare Alerts, deal shoppers can get free daily e-mails that advise them to book now or postpone booking their airfare, based on whether prices on their selected route are predicted to rise or fall in the next week.
Farecast uses historic data to predict fares, said Hugh Crean, the Seattle-based company's president and chief executive.
In some ways, Fare Alerts are similar to DealDetector by Orbitz, which e-mails alerts on low fares on a route selected by the consumer.
But, Crean said, "We add expert advice to the alert and monitor where the price has gone since you put on the alert."
Users of Fare Alerts get a daily chart showing what the lowest fare on a route has recently been; how much fares are expected to rise or fall; and a tip saying "Buy" or "Wait," based on this data.
So far, the alerts are available only for trips of two to eight nights.
"It's a very big leap for consumers to say we are able to forecast where fares are going," said Jared Blank, a New York-based travel industry analyst for Online Travel Review. He called Fare Alert "another great tool to have."
Although some other Web sites, such as FareCompare.com, present historic data, Blank said, "Farecast is the most predictive."
Just how reliable are its predictions?
After some media reports expressed doubts, Farecast commissioned Navigant Consulting Inc., a Chicago-based consulting company for various industries and government agencies, to review more than 44,000 fare predictions that Farecast made during the first three months of this year.
Overall, Crean said, Navigant found the forecasts were right nearly 75 percent of the time.
"Certainly, we're not clairvoyant," Crean said.
Blank said that's a major point for deal shoppers to keep in mind. "What I'm concerned about is that 25 percent of consumers are being told the wrong thing, if the Navigant study is correct," Blank said.
Neil Bainton, chief operating officer of FareCompare, which mines some of the same data that Farecast does, said he gives Farecast "a lot of credit" for its prediction concept.
But FareCompare may have a time advantage, he added.
Although his company doesn't forecast fares, Bainton said, it can e-mail price changes to customers within 15 minutes after they are filed in databases, as opposed to sending updates only once a day, as Farecast's alerts do.
That may give shoppers an edge because some deals last only for a few hours, Bainton said.
In other upgrades to Farecast's Web site, searches were broadened to include one-way and multi-city trips and all three classes, although predictions are still confined to 75 cities. Searchers can also filter out redeye flights, long layovers and other trip features.