When compared with 20 travel sites in seven countries, the U.S. sites of Expedia Inc., Orbitz Inc. and Travelocity.com LP fell behind travel sites for Belgium, Denmark and Germany.
The best performer was a little-known Belgian site, Travelprice, which provided the lowest price 49 percent of the time, according to the report (here in PDF form) from Consumer Reports WebWatch, a Yonkers, N.Y.-based project of the Consumers Union.
"For Americans wondering if better online travel deals are available outside the U.S., this project demonstrates that the answer is clearly yes," the report states. "Its also clear bargains await U.S. shoppers who can successfully deal with the language and currency issues."
Orbitz performed the best of the three U.S. sites, though the findings for the Chicago-based online travel service were based on a smaller sample of itineraries because Orbitz only books flights originating from the United States, said Bill McGee, a travel journalist who led the WebWatch investigation.
Orbitz returned the lowest-priced fare 17 percent of the time, compared with 5 percent for Travelocity and 3 percent for Expedia.
WebWatch collaborated with six European consumer groups to conduct 144 head-to-head tests among the 20 sites based on 36 routes. Along with the United States, the sites are from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark.
None of the tests was for U.S. domestic routes. Twenty-four were for itineraries originating in the United States and terminating in Europe, while the rest were for travel within Europe.
A rule of thumb gleaned from the project: Sites were twice as likely to provide the lowest fare if a route was originating in their home country.
"One of the lessons we learned from this is that theres definitely a home-field advantage in that most travel sites seem to be aggressive in negotiating deals with airlines," McGee said.
Officials with Orbitz and Travelocity defended their ability to find low fares for customers. Expedia officials declined to comment on the reports findings.
In a statement, Orbitz downplayed the findings because of the smaller sample of 24 tests used to compare its fare-finding capabilities and pointed out that in earlier tests, it was a top performer.
"Since the study primarily focused on flights originating outside the United States, it used a very small sample of Orbitz searches and therefore did not provide an accurate assessment of our capabilities," an Orbitz spokeswoman said in a statement.
For its part, Travelocity said in a statement that it has continued to improve its technology for returning cheaper fares, doubling the times it discovers the cheapest fare compared with when the studys tests were conducted.
For U.S. travelers who might be uncomfortable with booking on foreign-language sites, WebWatch re-examined English-language sites. Again, it found that none of the three U.S. sites captured the top spot, McGee said.
A British site, Opodo Ltd., took top honors by finding the cheapest ticket 59 percent of the time. Orbitz was second with 39 percent, trailed by Expedia and Travelocity, respectively, the report found.
WebWatch also found evidence that "fare-jumping" was worsening among the three U.S. travel services. Fare-jumping occurs when a flights price changes in the middle of a transaction. In an earlier investigation, WebWatch found that Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity subjected customers to fare-jumping.
In other online travel news, America Online Inc. on Friday announced that it is pushing into the travel search space with a plan to launch its own service in conjunction with Kayak Software Corp.
AOL, of Dulles, Va., will use Kayaks search engine to develop the service, for which a launch date was not disclosed.
Kayak, a Norwalk, Conn.-based startup created by the founders of Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, runs an engine that finds fares across 60 online sites. It competes with a growing number of travel search engines, including Yahoo Inc.s recently launched test of its revamped FareChase service.
AOL and Kayak also have entered into a multiyear marketing and technology agreement, the companies said. AOL also plans to make a minority investment in Kayak.