Trying to beat the airlines at the their own game is like playing three dimensional chess in your head. On any given flight 100 passengers could all be paying different fares. It's called "yield management", but there are things you should know about the airlines and ticket prices.
1. Good things come to those who complain.
It’s no secret that if you complain, the airlines will try and buy you off with frequent flyer miles or a voucher for a future flight. Normally, if your beef is minor (bad food, late plane, lumpy seat, rude gate attendants, lost baggage), they will offer you 5,000 frequent flyer points without any significant inquiry.
One United passenger exploited this to the extreme. George Yen, according to UA, complained about 200 times in six months. And it seemed to be working for him. United gave him mileage compensation totaling 68,500 miles, numerous upgrades, and $5,125 in certificates.
But as Christ Elliot explains, eventually Yen’s scheme ran aground: United froze his Frequent Flyer account and wrote him to say that his complaints appeared to be directed towards securing goodwill compensation in the form of entitlements.
So, complain, get free tickets, but… don’t overdo it.
2. Pay coach, fly business.
An implausible gimmick, right? Surprisingly, no. First class seats are available at coach prices, especially for last minute international travel. Large corporate travel agencies have deals with the airlines whereby their clients can often pay a full coach fare (pricey, but not as pricey as a regular business class ticket) and then be upgraded to business class, effectively saving thousands of dollars.
Domestically, coach tickets can be booked under codes like Y, Q, or Z, which award ticket holders automatic upgrades to first class. You can expect to save about a $1000. Roundtrip flight from Dallas to New York on American Airlines, the Y fare is $1167, which is nearly $1000 less than the regular first class fare.
Internationally, AA just started allowing Y upgrades to London. Definitely keep this in mind when flying to Europe…
3. Airline’s promises of good food are just that: promises.
Sure, airlines brag about their new menus. Continental Airlines: hot gourmet sandwiches, roast beef and oven-roasted turkey with gouda cheese on marble rye bread. Delta Air Lines: smoked salmon and egg salad croissants and roast beef steak cobb sandwiches. United Airlines: sweet crab salad on fresh bok choy and citrus-cured smoked salmon.
Sounds great, sure. But don’t expect anything special on domestic flights under four hours, says travel ombudsman Chris Elliot. For example, the Todd English sandwiches were only available on flights between New York and Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
Realistically? Expect dry roasted peanuts. Eat first of bring your own food.
4. You don’t have to fly business class to fly comfortably.
Book three seats for two people and have as much space as sitting business class but at one-third of the price. Two business class seats from San Francisco to London on BA cost $6,800 + taxes, but you can buy three coach seats with more room for only $825 + taxes. Sure you won’t get the fancy meals, but you’ll be comfortable and save close to $6,000! Also consider buying exit row seats on Qantas, United, Virgin, and Southwest. You get a ton of exra legroom.
5. Buy upgrades at the airline’s terminal counter.
It's a dirty secret: airlines--US Airways, United, and American-- are upgrading flyers from full coach to business class with a payment at gate of $500 or so, if the seats are available. Airlines don't publicize these upgrades-- it's up to the gate agent.
But if you're a frequent flyer or fly on a large corporate account, many travel agencies are able to upgrade passengers from a full coach fare for free. Full coach fares are not cheap, they run from $3,000 and up, but they're a lot better than $8,000 last minute refundable business class fares.
And upgraded full coach fares are fully refundable and changeable, unlike business class sale fares, which are non-refundable and non-changeable except at a fee.
6. Holidays are a tough time to fly, but a great time to book.
Look for special sales during holidays. BA has a habit of launching short sales during holiday periods, giving travelers a very small window to book… Typically, these fares are at least 20% lower… For example, a European trip in business class last week that was booking at $3,400, was pricing at $2,800 over Valentine’s Day weekend.
7. The airlines don’t always offer you their lowest fares.
Everyone knows of Expedia or Kayak, but most travel sites (the big boys included) do not sell consolidator or net fare airline tickets. Even the airlines themselves don’t sell these fares directly. Instead, they offer them to consolidators and large corporate agencies to ensure that they fill empty seats without publicly devaluing their inventory.
Before booking, ask a savvy travel agent. This is their business. They have access to consolidator and net fares that the airlines don’t sell, especially in international business and first class. You haggle with your mechanic and your broker for better prices…why forgo angling for a better business class ticket price? They’re out there. Do a Google search for “Business Class Discounts.”
8. Buy a package deal and save thousands.
Even if you don’t need/ can’t use the entire package, sometimes booking hotel/cruise/car and airfare can be CHEAPER than booking just the airfare. Keep an eye out for tour operators advertising these ridiculously low fares and package deals, especially if you’re traveling with little advance notice. You’re most likely to see advertisements for these deals in the Sunday Travel Section.
9. Consider buying roundtrip when you fly one way.
Airlines charge exorbitant prices for one-way tickets, and it is often the case that you can get cheaper roundtrip Saturday-stay tickets. Why is this? Because chances are, you’re flying one-way for something that demands that you fly no matter the cost (school, new job, etc.), whereas roundtrip flights must be priced to entice lower priority travel. Book a roundtrip ticket. The airlines don’t like it, but chances are you won’t be pushed on your "no return". Supreme Court Judge Scalia did this when he got a complimentary ride on Cheney’s private jet to kick off a duck-hunting trip but then booked roundtrip airfare (price $218) for his return one-way flight (which was pricing at $698). There was a lot buzz in the travel industry about his choice. One thing is certain: he saved money and he wasn't charged the difference.
10. Rule 240.
Understanding your rights under Rule 240 is essential. Read This article from Aviation.com, which explains the ins and outs of Rule 240: “if an airline [can't] get you to your destination on time, it [is] required to put you on a competitor’s flight if it would get you there faster than your original airline’s next flight.” Some airlines, including Delta, “no longer make any mention of transporting passengers on other airlines in the event of a flight disruption,”. So in a difficult situation with a canceled flight, its always in your best interest to firmly voice your rights.