CHAPTER ONE: GETTING THERESecrets of the savvy traveler
To travel well you must travel smart. To travel smart you must travel informed. And being informed isn’t just being up on sources and methods, though we have plenty of advice for you in that regard in the pages that follow. It’s also understanding that when it comes to airfares, time is money. Some people, though, never get it.The Art of the Fare Chase
You know the type: Those compulsive deal-finders whose self-esteem depends on getting an absolute rock-bottom price and crowing about it, never mind that they wasted all day Saturday, missing the kids’ soccer game, to save $11.25 on a round-trip to Cleveland. In our opinion, a key factor in booking air travel is knowing when to stop the search. For the search can often be a frustrating and complex endeavor that’s akin to shopping in the dark—imagine groping about blindly in Wal-Mart without being able to see the merchandise (and all the while the prices are shifting). Airlines, you see, price tickets not on what it costs to provide the service, but rather on how much money the carrier thinks it can get at any given moment. That means a ticket for the same flight can cost $200 or $2,000, depending on when you inquire. So, yes, some endeavor can lead to big savings. But too much can be a huge waste of time. So how do you strike a reasonable balance? Knowing a few basic rules about airfares is a must.
1. Watch carefully for airline announcements of new routes or flights. New service often means—initially, at least—empty seats. To fill those planes, airlines often offer fares at garage-sale prices.
2. Keep an eye out for fare wars, which happen all the time. When one airline announces price cuts, wait a few days to see if the other carriers are matching it (they often do). Then find out from the airlines what time of day they load their computers with new fares. This is easier to do than you think: Airlines routinely list all this information on their websites. (And we run new service announcements in the Wall Street Journal.)
Beyond that, several travel websites offer fare alerts—they keep track of airlines’ fare sales, and will send you free e-mails to keep you up to date. Travelocity’s Fare Watcher (Travelocity.com) will e-mail you if a specific itinerary you requested goes on sale; you can enter a number of cities and choose to be e-mailed either when a price falls by $25 or if it falls below a threshold you specify. Orbitz (Orbitz.com) will show when the lowest prices are available and has a “Deal Detector” that lets you register a price you want, then alerts you if it shows up. Smarterliving.com offers weekly newsletters with various deal alerts—fare sales from major carriers as well as last-minute weekend deals from your hometown. Last-minute deals are sent to you on the Wednesday before the weekend that’s on sale (Monday for international flights). The newsletters also offer travel tips and news, and Smarterliving.com’s site has links to the airlines so you can buy directly from them. A few other tips:
3. Connections are usually cheaper than nonstop flights. You may not like the hassle of a longer trip or the risk of missing a connection, but a few hours of extra travel may be worth saving enough to afford, say, a bottle of really nice champagne when you arrive.
4. Don’t be a snob and rule out package deals. Yes, we know that “package travel” often conjures up images of noisy vacationers in baggy Bermuda shorts waiting in endless queues. But one of the industry’s best-kept secrets is that packages increasingly are a tool for snagging airfare bargains, not only for last-minute romps but also for business travelers, routine trips and even family emergencies. The idea is essentially to buy the package for its parts, since the airfare is often a bargain—and there isn’t a penalty if you ditch the hotel. For most domestic travel, a trip with a Saturday-night or at least a three-night stay will get the best deals. The opposite is true for leisure destinations like Las Vegas or the Caribbean, where midweek travel is the best bet for a cheap package.And bear in mind:
5. Timing is everything. It helps to know when the peak travel times are for where you want to go, since booking the last or first day of the new season can save hundreds of dollars without changing your schedule too drastically. For example, tickets are usually more expensive to the Western United States from June through August and January through March, while on the New York–Boston route it is June through September and the month of December. Peak to European cities is May through September, but the Riviera and Greece are less expensive in September. Also find out what your airline’s peak travel times are; in general the most expensive times to fly are between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. There’s an old trick frequent fliers use: If they want a peak-hour flight but don’t want to pay the peak rate, they make a reservation on a cheaper flight right after it—and then show up at the airport early. Assuming there’s room, most ticket agents will let you on the earlier flight without changing the fare. But call first and ask for the airline’s policy.
A little-noticed rule change is making it easier for travelers to get cheaper tickets on some international flights. Under the new procedures, it is possible for travelers to benefit from the fact that some tickets cost substantially less when bought overseas. Previously, airlines had a system that kept many of these lower prices off-limits for travelers trying to book overseas flights—you had to physically go to, say, Thailand to get cheaper Thai price. But on January 15, an airline trade group discarded that system, putting the new ticketing guidelines into effect. For example, the lowest price on American Airlines for a Dallas-Istanbul business-class round-trip via Zurich used to be $6,946, not including taxes. Now, however, a traveler can book the same trip as two one-way tickets (instead of one round-trip), and pay $6,047, undercutting the listed round-trip price by about $900. That wasn’t possible before, because travelers buying outside Istanbul would have been charged the higher Zurich-Dallas fare by default.
However, it still can be tricky to take full advantage of the changes. For starters, some travel agents don’t know about them yet. In addition, some of the airlines’ own Internet sites won’t yet process bookings for points of origin that don’t match the credit-card address. As a result, calling an airline’s 800 number and talking to a human to make a booking may be the best bet. For travelers flying out of the United States, the best deals come on itineraries that include a connection at an airport abroad. That’s partly because previously, itineraries that made connections through large hub airports in high-priced markets (say, London), automatically took on the higher fare prices associated with that market—even if t he flight was continuing on to a low-fare market such as India. Now, that is no longer the case. (One exception: The higher fares still automatically kick in on flights with a layover of 24 hours or more.) Travelers can benefit by pricing a trip as two one-way tickets because for the first time, they will have access to the cheaper price formerly intended for sale in the low-fare market.Also, keep in mind two other money-saving tips:
1. Flying to an international destination from a hub airport is likely to be more expensive than flying out of a non-hub city.
2. Foreign partners in airline code-share agreements usually have cheaper tickets for the same flight.Now you can start the buying process. Here’s what to do:
Armed with an Official Airline Guide (OAG), which lists all the flights to every airport in the world, start online by downloading sidestep.com.
The service will appear on the left half of your screen and will sift through airline websites and lots of other travel vendors you wouldn’t normally search that aren’t in the big centralized reservation systems. Then check the Big Three ticket-buying websites—Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com. Route by route, these can be quite different because they have different pricing negotiated with different carriers. All offer packages of airfare and hotel bookings that can yield savings. And they’ll search alternative airports near your destination—a key money-saver. Don’t spend more than half an hour trying to find a bargain this way and—unless you really do have all the time in the world, we recommend skipping all the other, smaller sites. Our long experience shows that the return for this extra effort is usually quite slim. On the other hand, beware of hype on the big sites. For example, Travelocity’s “Good Buys” simply aren’t always the best deal. Orbitz may have good fares but it doesn’t negotiate proprietary deals with airlines—meaning other sites may well have deals Orbitz doesn’t.
1. That’s why the next stop is the airlines’ own sites, where they often sell fares that aren’t widely available and list last-minute deals. Booking through the sites can also net incentives, like bonus frequent-flier miles, and lets you avoid fees charged by the Big Three. Don’t just look at the big carriers—every airline has its own site and the less-known ones don’t show up elsewhere.
2. Finally, go on Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) and bid 10 or 20 percent lower to see what you get—if you don’t like it, you have an hour to cancel the results.Bonus Tip: Keep Looking After Buying
Just because you already bought a ticket, don’t stop looking at prices. Even with the airline industry’s financial woes, most carriers will still refund you the difference between the two prices—as long as you qualify for the new fare’s rules and restrictions. And here is the big surprise: Generally you do qualify. The best way to make sure is to call the airline. Refunds either come in the same form in which you paid, or as travel vouchers, depending on the carrier.
When would you not qualify? One example: You hear about a lower fare four days before your departure but it has a 14-day advance-purchase requirement. Because that is a common requirement, check published fares at least two weeks before you leave. The caveat: Most airlines have exceptions. For instance, Delta won’t issue refunds if the lower fare is an Internet-only one.Finding Scarce Air Tickets
The Problem: The plane tickets you want for the holidays are already sold out.
The Solution: Stay up late.
Every night at midnight, new plane seats go back onto the system. That’s when airline reservations made but never confirmed expire, freeing up space on many flights. Airlines typically “reload” at midnight in the time zone where they are based—in all, hundreds of new seats are fed back into the system every night. On a recent evening, for example, American Airlines’ website showed three nonstop flights from New York to Orlando, Florida, an especially busy route, with seat availability for the coming Friday. But at midnight CST, seats on a fourth flight (one with an earlier departure) popped up as well.Tracking Flight Delays
The Problem: What can you do to cut down on future waits at the airport?
The Solution: Most major airlines have flight-tracking services, which provide the latest information on arriving and departing planes, and some have special features.
Delta (delta.com) and Northwest (nwa.com) will e-mail you with gate information and any schedule changes. American (aa.com) will call or page you. These sites are now updating their information more frequently. Even if you don’t know the exact itinerary, often you can input what you do know and a list of possible flights will pop up. Some sites have a few extra features. Flightarrivals.com tells you about delays at the airports themselves. Trip.com even shows the plane moving across a map in real time, and its speed and altitude.The Joys (and Benefits) of Delay
The Problem: What to do if you get bumped.
The Solution: If you can handle the hassle of a delayed trip, getting “bumped” from a flight can reap big rewards.
The Department of Transportation requires that airlines compensate bumped passengers, and the rules officially apply only if the flight leaves from the United States and if the carrier can’t find a way to get you to your destination within an hour of your scheduled arrival. You typically get around $300 in vouchers for future tickets, but if too few people raise their hands, airlines will sweeten the deal—sometimes up to $800 or more in perks—until they get enough takers.
Always ask for a seat reservation on another flight before agreeing to get bumped—for common routes, you could end up departing just 15 minutes later, but for tropical islands, the next available flight may not leave for two days. Airlines should put you on another carrier’s flight if one is available. If you get stranded overnight, ask the airlines to pay for extra expenses such as hotel rooms, transportation and meals.
Want to improve chances of a bump? Check in as early as possible. Once at the gate, ask the agent if the flight is oversold, and volunteer on the spot to give up your ticket. Airlines bump on a first-come, first-served basis, so those who get their names in first are guaranteed to be left behind if the airline determines volunteers are needed. If you check in 30 minutes or less prior to departure, you could get bumped without compensation.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Business of Life by Nancy Keates. Copyright © 2005 by Nancy Keates. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.