Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Art of the Airline Deal: 7 Ways to Find the Best Fare
October 22, 2015 -- This was the week that was in business travel: The new chief executive of United Airlines suffered a heart attack and has been temporarily replaced. Delta Air Lines added another clutch of flights at Seattle-Tacoma, the hometown and major hub of its one-time ally Alaska Airlines. And, oh, yeah, British Airways unleashed a two-day fare sale for the ages. British Airways promised $2,015 roundtrip fares on business-class tickets to London from any of its U.S. gateways. The sale was also extraordinarily broad and you could book tickets for travel through next August. Within minutes, however, travelers discovered that the sale extended far beyond London to virtually every destination in Europe that BA serves. Prices also were far lower — as low as $1,500 roundtrip, in fact — than BA announced. Thanks to a series of ticketing tricks and previously announced promotions, roundtrip fares were frequently driven below the $1,000 mark. Then it became an industry-wide free-for-all when British Airways competitors matched. How do you cash in when British Airways or another carrier unleashes the next ridiculously wonderful fare sale? How do I know? I'm still trying to figure out why BA launched the sale in the first place and what its financial motivations could have been. However, I do know a little about the art of the airline deal. Here are seven things to think about when searching for the best fare. I can't guarantee it'll help you the next time an airline decides to sell business class seats from San Francisco to London for $1,000 roundtrip, but I know the information will save you money on day-to-day travel.
Know the pricing realitiesIgnore anyone who tells you there is a "best" day to buy tickets. No such thing. Airlines change prices millions of times each day via yield-management systems and a fare war can start at any time. Don't think prices remain consistent over a month or a week or even a single day, either. It's all about when, specifically, you expect to fly. Generally speaking, fares will be lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and highest on Friday and Sunday evenings. And since airlines literally rig the system to charge business travelers the most, the cheapest fares on traditional airlines usually require a roundtrip purchase with a Saturday or Sunday stay, a restriction we are loath to hit. Fares without an advance purchase requirement will almost always cost the most; prices decline the further out you book. The sweet spot for domestic fares is 7 or 14 days in advance. The lowest international fares often require you purchase them as much as 60 days before departure.
Temper your expectationsMy father had two rules about travel. One was that no flight to Florida should cost more than $69 one-way. He also believed anything above $99 one-way for a transcontinental fare was too expensive. My father, rest his soul, was a fool — albeit it a fool who occasionally got really cheap flights. Existentially, of course, no flight is worth more than you want to pay for it. Practically, however, you should set realistic pricing parameters. If an airline's "walk-up" price between two cities is, say, $900, it's fine to assume you can book a seat two weeks in advance with a Saturday stay and score a $450 fare. But it's probably asking too much to assume you can score a $200 roundtrip fare. And remember: airlines rarely price on a cost-per-mile basis, so don't assume a short flight between Pittsburgh and Chicago should cost less than a flight between Charlotte and Munich. It just don't work that way.
Use the best toolsKayak.com is perfectly good for snapshots of airfares on a particular route. It allows you to search as many as three days before and after your selected travel dates. It shows you a color-coded grid of fares within those parameters and allows you to kern your search by number of stops and by particular airlines. (One example: Kayak found roundtrip fares between $177 and $453 for a Boston-Austin journey next month.) But there is a lesser-known, more powerful search tool: the Matrix Airfare Search Google's ITA Software. It allows you to search a month at a time. That kind of power permits you to see that the price for a 7-day business class trip from Chicago to Paris next month ranges from $2,728 roundtrip to $7,136. Meanwhile, the British Airways sale last week was driven by BA's own pricing tool, which allowed travelers to find the carrier's lowest fares for the next year.
Understand structural realitiesBusiness travel tends to peak between March and June and mid-September and mid-December. Although there will be exceptions, your business travel tickets will cost the most during those periods. January and February tend to be the slowest months for travel, except, of course, for flights from cold climates to beach and sun destinations. For leisure destinations, travel breaks down into three seasons: peak, when demand and prices are highest; off-peak when demand is lowest because travelers decide the destination is undesirable; and "shoulder," the month or two before and after the peak season. You often get the best value for money on "shoulder" season flights because prices are lower and local conditions are still felicitous. One other note: airlines with substantial European flight networks have installed "structural" business class sales around Easter, the summer months, Thanksgiving and the end-of-year-holidays. The reason? Business travelers don't fly during those periods, so airlines slash fares as a way to entice leisure customers to buy up from coach.
The connection conundrumSometimes connecting flights will cost substantially less than a nonstop flights. The problem with a connecting flight? It doubles your chance of a flight disruption due to mechanical problems or inclement weather. If you're willing to gamble, it's fairly simple to figure out when a connecting flight is a bargain. Multiply your hourly earnings by the number of additional hours a connecting itinerary requires. If the connecting flight saves you more than you'd earn in those hours, it's a bargain worth considering.
Check for discountsUnlike hotels, which frequently discount via third-party organizations such as the AAA or on "opaque" booking sites such as Hotwire and Priceline, airlines aren't so anxious to offer price concessions. Still, flyers who booked bargains during last week's British Airways sale cut their prices by another $400 roundtrip thanks to a special discount the airline offers to AARP members. Moral of the tale: it never hurts to check with your organizations and interest groups to see if they have a discount arrangement with the airlines.
Farm it all outIf finding the lowest prices on your flights seems like too much work, do the obvious: farm it all out to a travel agent. Yes, they charge fees. But the more frequently you travel — and the more complex your flight patterns — the better value a travel agent will be.
This column is Copyright © 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.