Searching for lowest air fares

Flying: Finding good deals is still possible, but more complicated.

Strategies

October 21, 2001|By Carol Pucci | Carol Pucci,SEATTLE TIMES

If you're looking for deals on air fares in the coming weeks and months, chances are there will be some, but finding them will take some digging.

"There are no all-out, clearance, everything-must-go sales," says Terry Trippler, analyst for OneTravel.com, an online discount-ticket seller.

Airlines, reeling from cancellations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, are still juggling schedules and figuring out the best strategies to win back customers. While some fares have fallen, prices haven't changed on some routes, and rock-bottom fares to Europe have yet to materialize.

Deals, as they do develop, are appearing on airline Web sites, the Internet sites of online ticket sellers, in e-mail to frequent fliers and through travel agents who deal with consolidators -- middlemen who buy and resell airline tickets at a discount.

Airlines are cutting the number of frequent-flier miles required for free trips, reducing advance-purchase times and letting customers combine frequent-flier miles with cash.

Most are matching sales started by Southwest Airlines and AmericaWest. Alaska Airlines recently announced a range of discounted fares including $98 round-trip from Seattle to San Francisco for travel through Oct. 31 and $118 fares for travel through Dec. 15.

If you're planning to fly soon, or are thinking about travel that's six months away, shop around. There is no one source that can guarantee you the best fares.

"There are three ways to buy an airline ticket," Trippler says. "Through the airline, online and through a travel agent, and you have to compare all three constantly."

Airlines load fare changes into computer systems several times a day. Deals can come and go quickly, sometimes the result of internal skirmishes among airlines that may last just a few hours.

"What happens is one airline will step out of bounds and start discounting in someone else's hub [an airport where one airline controls the majority of the flights and fares tend to be high]. It becomes like a disease and starts spreading," says Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com, an online consolidator that offers discounted air fares to members.

"I would not be surprised to see Europe in the low $400s from January to March," Parsons says. "If you're thinking of April or May, sit back, have a cup of coffee and come back in January or February."

If you want to be in a position to get a deal, have a game plan, Parsons advises. Figure out where you want to go, and your willingness to go to a nearby airport where the fare might be cheaper.

"From the moment you know you are going, start checking daily," Parsons advises. "So when the fares drop, you can get on the Internet or get on the phone and book it."

Also keep in mind:

* Don't rely on any one commercial Web site to show you a complete range of fares; the cheapest fare available for a particular flight or the most convenient flight available for the price. Check around, and look at sites such as www.qixo.com and www.farechase.com, two that scan a wide range of airline and travel sites.

* Monitor airline Web sites. Even Orbitz, the online site founded by five major airlines, can be undercut by unadvertised specials on the airlines' own sites. Orbitz sells the lowest published fares that airlines make available through the Airline Tariff Publishing Co., an industrywide clearinghouse, but airlines are free to sell lower, "unpublished" fares on their own. And Southwest doesn't make its flight information available to Orbitz at all.

* Check with travel agents, especially those who have contacts with consolidators, to buy tickets at a discount. Many of these agents are small but do a lot of business targeted to a particular area, such as South America, Europe or Asia. They may be in the position to have the best deals.

If you book a consolidator fare, keep in mind that you are not buying directly from the airline, but from a third party, and refund polices and restrictions can be different.

* Make sure whatever fare you're quoted is a bottom-line price that includes taxes and fees. They can add $100 or more to the price of a ticket, and many ads for low fares don't include these.

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