It's fare war season, with airlines touting MegaDeals and SuperSavings.
While carriers typically offer a dozen major fare sales a year, summer ones are among the best.
This year, with gasoline prices pushing up the cost of driving, more and more travelers are trolling for airfare bargains.
With airline sales nearly as common as department store specials, passengers can expect deals to continue to crop up all summer, travel experts say.
"We're going to see a new fare war every two weeks or less," says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares Discount Travel magazine in Arlington, Texas. Once a major carrier announces a sale, others rush to match it within hours.
But fare sales are only one way to save money, says Parsons. The key to real bargains is combining a good fare with one of the airline's "hidden deals."
For instance, he says, you can switch your long distance to MCI and get a "buy-one, get-one-free" coupon for travel on Northwest Airlines. Or you can buy a Fisher-Price toy and get a coupon on America West to take a family of four coast-to-coast for roughly half the full fare price.
"These deals save you 60 percent to 70 percent," he said. "The trick is to find the lowest fare and then see what you can take off the top."
Such coupons -- more than a billion issued each year through airlines, retailers and others -- are but one factor that contributes to more affordable fares. The biggest has been the growth of low-cost, discount carriers, which produced $6.3 billion in savings for consumers last year alone, according to a recent U.S. Department of Transportation study.
Last year, U.S. airlines pushed their fares upward as they tried to reverse six straight years of losses tallying $13 billion. Still, the average fare rose only 1 percent, according to American Express Travel Related Services Inc.'s latest survey of fares in 215 cities.
The expiration four months ago of the 10 percent federal tax on air fares gave the airlines flexibility to reduce fares and still make money. In effect, the airlines and passengers split the savings.
"Still, the fare reductions have been on a market-by-market basis," said David Stempler, a Washington, D.C., airline passenger consultant. "Wherever the airlines could pocket the savings themselves, they did. Wherever they had low-fare competition, they cut prices."
Travel agents in Baltimore say discounts remain surprisingly good today, even compared with 18 months ago when the battles among Continental, USAir and Southwest Airlines made Baltimore-Washington International Airport a low-fare haven.
"When a carrier starts to get low on their cash flow, they run these sales," said Jim Pryor, president of Four Seasons Travel in Cockeysville.
"Often they cut them down so low, they're losing money. But the idea is to capture the market," he said. "Hopefully, people who travel will come back again. That's what they're banking on."
For passengers, the problem, says Pryor, is figuring out when the sales will occur and where.
"There's no consistency," he said.
Typically, fare sales are designed to fill empty seats on the off-peak days -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. The fares generally apply to 14-day advance purchase tickets for travel during a limited period of time and require a Saturday night stay.
Yet they are accompanied by a host of rules and quirks. Occasionally, the advertised sales are actually higher than an existing low fare.
For instance, USAir currently is offering a $400 round-trip sale from Baltimore to Los Angeles. Yet even before the sale was announced, the lowest published fare -- which appears on the computer system used by consumers and travel agents alike -- was $298 round trip, with identical travel restrictions.
It all has to do with revenue management -- how many seats the airline allocates at various prices.
"Airlines are going to be stingy," says Parsons. "Their job is to take the most money from consumers. Our job is to give them the least amount."
Or, as one airline official explains it:
"You're going to sell X number of seats at $298 and when you've sold enough of those, you go to the next fare level, which is $400," explains David Castelveter, a spokesman for USAir, which handles nearly half the 31,000 daily passengers at BWI.
"Every market is different and the respective fare structure is different," he said. "The secret is to purchase your ticket well in advance and be flexible with your days of travel."
In their efforts to become profitable again, airlines last year eliminated many flights. But the number of people flying is increasing -- up 8 percent during the first quarter of this year, according to American Express' travel services.
"There will be good deals," said Robert Harrell, consultant to American Express. "But it's like the retail industry. If you want to buy a summer suit, you'll pay more in June. If you wait until July, you'll pay less, but you might not get the size or color you want."
"For the best of both worlds -- low price and maximum availability," he said, "plan several months, not several weeks, ahead."
Pub Date: 5/28/96