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HARDWARE

Win the Battle of the Fare Wars

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Plan far enough in advance, and you can almost always take advantage of a fare war. Often we see a new domestic fare war begin several weeks after the previous one ends. If you can plan your travel at least 60 days in advance, you have a very good shot at being able to get fare war prices.

With the increasing effect of online sales, the need to analyze each fare war has grown increasingly important. There are regional fare wars, systemwide fare wars, and mini fare wars that affect just one pair of cities. We call these one-city-pair wonders "snooze, you lose" fares because they can appear and disappear within the same day.

The airline fare war ads always quote the most favorable percentage-off figure. They base the discount percentage on the published fares that few travelers really pay. Thus, an ad that promises 45% off will get your hopes up, but probably deflate them when you find out the actual cost of your sale ticket. If you don't know how fares run in the market you will be traveling, ask your travel agent to compare the fare war price with the fare that bargain hunters usually pay in the market. A good agent can do this from memory, or do some historical fare checks via the computer reservation system.

Fare wars and online sales pop up regularly because yield management people send out the word that sales need a boost. They're usually initiated at the beginning of the week. One airline starts a fare war by lowering prices on select flights (highly competitive routes are most likely to be the prime focus). Within hours, other airlines in competitive markets fall in line. They may match the fares the leader initiated, or they may undercut them. Fare wars increase the already mind-boggling array of prices available on any flight. One recent fare war resulted in a total of more than 250 different fares for a New York-Los Angeles roundtrip, ranging from $290 to $2,334.

During the first hours of a fare war, travel agents may be at a disadvantage compared with the airlines. Information on their computer systems may be incomplete. The sale fares may be listed, but the travel agents may not be able to access the fare rules or may be unable to ticket.

Book a fare war ticket too soon, and you may pay too much. Airlines update fares three times a day (Monday through Friday) usually at 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m., and 8 p.m. EST. On weekends they update at 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. When a major airline starts a fare war, it tries to take advantage of the 8 p.m. weekday or 3 p.m. Sunday update so that the competition is prevented from matching fares until the following update time -- 12:30 p.m. the next day. This gives the originator a 24-hour price and advertising advantage. It can pay to wait a day or so after a fare war starts to allow other airlines time to scramble, meet prices, open up seats, and try to come up with advantages that scoop the airline that initiated the price cuts.

Don't be fooled by airline ads that say they'll honor a lower fare if ticket prices go down. What they fail to mention is that you have to pay a $75 fee (sometimes waived if you accept the fare difference in airline vouchers). Unless your fare goes down dramatically, you may not come out ahead. Ask your travel agency to void your ticket at no cost if the fare goes down before it submits its weekly Airline Reporting Commission (ARC) report and reissue the ticket at the lower fare.

Don't assume that a fare war price is the lowest available price. A low-cost carrier may have driven the ticket price even lower on a specific daily flight. An airline not even in the fare war may offer a ticket price below the publicized discount rates. For example, Hawaiian Airlines recently offered roundtrips to Honolulu at $80 less than other carriers' fare war prices. Don't settle for a fare war discount alone. In many cases, you can use a discount coupon to bring the fare down even lower.

Mini fare wars get less media attention because they come and go so quickly, but they can save you a lot of money. They occur when two carriers enter into competition in a specific market. Big Air lowers a fare to Huge Air's hub city. Huge Air strikes back. By communicating via computer, airlines slip through a legal loophole in regulations forbidding them to discuss fares among themselves. You can take advantage of these fares if you check the Bestfares.com news desk regularly and move fast when you find a "snooze, you lose" deal you can use.

Holiday fare wars have become a little less predictable, but still appear with enough regularity to make them useful for last-minute travelers. These deals can sometimes get you bargains on tickets for holiday travel with just a one-day advance or with no Saturday stay requirement. You will usually find special fares for Christmas, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Valentine's Day, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving, New Year's, and even Elvis Presley's birthday.

International fare wars recur in approximately four- to five-week cycles. There are more fare wars to Europe than to any other international destination. Plan trips to Europe at least 90 to 120 days in advance to help ensure a fare war reduction of 20% to 40%. By using a wholesaler such as World Travel Network (800-576-2242), you could save another 5% to 30%. By combining both discount opportunities (the fare war and the wholesaler), you get a double discount.

Some deals have a very limited booking window; others are more extensive. There are also seat limit factors. A certain number of seats are set aside for sale fare tickets. Some peak flights may have zero availability, even when the fare sale is first announced. Travelers who are among the first to know about fare wars (and those who can be flexible on their travel dates) have the best chance of booking the best sale fares. Some offer added discounts for travel on off-peak days -- usually Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday for domestic travel; midweek for international travel.

One of our favorite fare war stories involves America West. It announced its sale and, when we checked it out, found a mistake. Because information on new fares must be posted in airline reservation systems very quickly (competitors are always nipping at one another's heels), the person entering the data made a mistake. The sale fares were meant to be offered for travel through March 11, 1998. A slip of the finger entered them as available for travel through March 11, 1999. We found the error and posted it without delay. Suddenly the travel window opened up much wider, and the airline had to honor the ticket requests. It caught its error that same day and entered the correct expiration date, but hundreds of travelers were able to use the error to their own advantage.

Bestfares.com, is designed to save travelers time and money. The one-stop travel resource site tracks the latest specials, posting hundreds of deals every day. It covers domestic and international airfares, frequent flyer bonuses, business travel, vacation packages, cruise travel, lodging, car rentals, rail travel, and more. Most deals are available to the general public. Specially negotiated discounts exclusive to Bestfares.com members offer savings of as much as 70%.

Copyright © 2000 Bestfares.com

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