AIRLINE TICKET STRATEGIES NO
4/1/2011 4:28:02 PM Link
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Joe Brancatelli is the writer and publisher of an excellent weekly newsletter about travel. Here are some tips from his blog "Joe Sent Me" about how to get air travel that skips on the price, but not the quality.
By Joe Brancatelli
When airlines begin making money—and they all made money, according to their third-quarter financials—they invariably try to push up ticket prices. It's part of the boom-and-bust cycle of commercial aviation: Airlines see revenues rise, push prices too high and add too much capacity, then crash as travelers resist the higher fares and leverage the extra seats for bargains.
This time, the cycle might be slightly. Worldwide capacity—slashed upwards of 20 percent after the meltdown of financial markets two years ago—is creeping up again. The number of flights worldwide last month increased just 6 percent compared to September 2009. Fares are headed upwards too. According to one airline trade group, yield per domestic mile flown increased 7.8 percent in September. They'd fallen 16.6 percent in September 2009.
Given these uncertain times, how can you manage your flight costs over the next several months? Here are some tips worth considering:
Buy Now, Pay (More) Later
Your fare dollar buys less travel than ever before. In recent years, the legacy carriers (Delta, American, United, Continental, and US Airways) have rushed to un-bundle products and services from the base fare. You now face a daunting list of possible up-charges after the purchase. Depending on your needs, your extras will cost as much as: $7 for a pillow and blanket; $10 for in-flight meals and snacks; $15 for early boarding; $25 for a ticket processed at an airport or via the airline's call center; $30 for each checked bag; $50 to fly standby or to fly on "high demand" travel days; $75 to sit in supposedly "prime" coach seats; $150 worth of "fuel surcharges" on international flights; and ticket-change fees of $150 for domestic flights and $500 for international ones. As you plan future flights, pay attention to the total price you'll pay, not just the number on the ticket.
Know Who's Out to Get You
Legacy carriers deny it, at least publicly, but their collective pricing structure is specifically designed to force business travelers to pay more than vacation flyers. By redlining their lowest prices with punitive restrictions that business travelers will not or cannot meet (Saturday-night stays, roundtrip purchases, advance-purchase requirements, and high change fees), legacy lines try to steer you to unencumbered "walk-up" fares. Depending on your itinerary, walk-up fares can cost 10 times more than the lowest available restricted prices. But alternate airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran don't sell roundtrip-only or Saturday-stay fares, and their change fees are modest or nonexistent.Bottom line on your bottom line: You're almost certain to pay less on any route where one or more of the alternate carriers fly.
Buy Early and Remain Disciplined
If you're unlucky enough to need passage on a route where an alternate carrier doesn't operate, you'll need to make the most of a bad situation. Buy tickets as early as possible, which generally gets you a lower price, then stick to your plans. If you try to change flights, you'll get hit with the hefty change fee and the difference between the advance-purchase price and the prevailing walk-up fare.
Don't Ignore the Other Guys
The number of airlines plying domestic skies has shrunk, but there are more choices than just legacy players and the big-name alternate airlines. Alaska Airlines may carry the name of the 49th state, but its hub is in Seattle, it's the major player in the Pacific Northwest, it flies coast to coast, and it offers a substantial number of seats to Hawaii and Mexico. Virgin America operates along the West Coast as well as to New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Dallas, and Florida. The mash-up called Frontier Airlines now encompasses several smaller carriers and operates from hubs in Denver and Milwaukee and has substantial service around the Midwest.
Find a Good Travel Agent
The widespread availability of online pricing tools has convinced many business travelers that they can go it alone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more complicated your travel, the more you need a good travel agent. Their fees are modest considering the tricks they know and the time they can save you. Of course, "good" travel agents are hard to find. How do you get one? Ask friends, family, and business associates. If they have an agent they like, you might like that agent too.
Know the Basic Tactics
• Don't buy on the weekends. Airlines tend to file price increases on a Thursday evening. Then they wait out the weekend as other carriers decide whether to match. If they don't, the fare increase is withdrawn on Monday morning, but if you bought over the weekend, you won't get a refund.
• Even if they cost more, nonstop flights are almost always a better option than connecting itineraries. The more flights you take to complete your journey, the greater the chance of delays and lost luggage.
• Always check flights a few hours or a few days around your planned travel time. Prices often differ dramatically.
• Always inquire about the availability of upgrades to first class. Super-elite flyers don't always get them all. They are often available for purchase at the gate before departure. And remember that several airlines have reasonably priced seats in more spacious parts of the plane. AirTran calls their upfront cabin business class. Frontier sells "stretch" seats with extra legroom. The first few rows of most JetBlue flights have seats with additional space for a few dollars more too.
Value Your Time
Remember Seat 2B's Golden Rule of Ticket Buying: The fairest fare is the one that balances the price you pay with the time it takes for you to find and book it.
The Fine Print…
The Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight Program finally comes into full effect on Monday, November 1. The TSA will insist that your submit the following information whenever you book a ticket: your full name as it appears on government-issued ID, your date of birth and your gender. Here's the TSA explanation of its intentions.