Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar, 5763

Christopher Elliott

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Consumer Reports

Playing the system to win | What's the easiest way to start an in-flight brawl? Tape a picture of Osama Bin Laden to your seat? Drink a quart of vodka and make a pass at your seatmate?

Nope. Just tell anyone how much you paid for your airline ticket. Chances are they shelled out more than you did (they'll get the first swing) or you overpaid (then you'll get it).

These profoundly unfair but extremely profitable pricing mechanisms come to us courtesy of what the airlines call yield management systems. The sophisticated programs predict demand for each flight and then set rates accordingly.

Think of it as a game. Yield management systems allocate a certain number of seats at a bargain fare, others for mileage upgrades and a handful for last-minute business travelers, for example. That's why your seatmate might have paid more - or less - for an identical seat on the same flight. The airline is basically betting on what you're willing to pay for your ticket.

Why not play the game to win? In this week's column we'll take a look at how to capitalize on an airline's pricing scheme, to effectively play the yield-management system game. Next week, I'll zero in on travel agencies and show you how to enlist them in your quest for the cheapest ticket price.

Garden-variety airfare sale. The typical airfare sale offers you a price break of between 30 to 35 percent off the advance-purchase airline ticket. For example a recent America West Airlines offered a systemwide fare sale with prices as low as $34 each way, based on a roundtrip purchase. A seven-day advance purchase and Friday or Saturday night stay were required with a maximum stay of 30 days. A flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix with a seven-day advance purchase at about the same time cost $81.86. The sale price, if you bought a ticket by phone or through an agent, was $68. However, if you booked on America West's Web site, the price dropped to $64.

With this type of sale, you normally have to make reservations a minimum of seven days before you fly. Generally, the tickets are good for stays of no more than 30 days. If you're interested in traveling somewhere in the near future - maybe late summer vacation - then this is the kind of fare sale you should consider taking advantage of.

Internet-only sale. Airlines also offer what are called Internet-only sales, and the discounts can be even greater - anywhere from 40 to 50 percent - although many are more modest. The most popular kind of Internet-only sale is the kind offered over a short period of time, such as a weekend. These offers are e-mailed to a list of airline customers every Tuesday or Wednesday, and they tend to sell quickly, so the sooner you buy, the better your chances of getting a seat.

Here's an example of a weekend sale: US Airways recently offered an $89 roundtrip fare between Albany, N.Y., and Boston. Travel had to be started by Saturday and the return had to be completed no earlier than Sunday. The ticket was nonrefundable. The same flight at a non-weekend rate, departing Saturday and returning Tuesday, cost $106 on US Airways.

There are a few things to remember when you're considering a weekend fare. Travel must be started Friday or Saturday, returning Monday or Tuesday. Restrictions are also tight: Normally, an upgrade is impossible and you're forced to fly early in the morning. If you're a Web-savvy early bird who wants to get away for a weekend, you might want to look into a weekend fare. Some airlines let you use your frequent flier mileage to buy these tickets at a reduced rate, which makes these deals even more appealing.

One-day sales. When airlines get desperate because seats aren't selling fast enough, they put everything on sale for an extremely brief period of time. Before last fall, you could almost count the number of one-day sales on one hand. No longer. (One-day is something of a misnomer, because most of these sales last 27 hours to give the West coast an opportunity to take advantage of the lower ticket prices.)

Here, the airlines have you on a short leash. Tickets must be bought immediately and reservations by Internet are strongly preferred. In fact, if you book by phone, you may have to pay a few dollars extra per ticket. Don't even think about a refund. If you can make a decision to travel at a moment's notice and have a little extra time to buy your ticket - sometimes you have to stay on "hold" for hours at a time or have to deal with timed-out Web connections - then you'll want to try a one-day sale.

It can be worth the trouble. Average discounts are between 40 and 50 percent. Recently, Delta Air Lines held a textbook example of a one-day sale. A ticket between Atlanta and Washington (Dulles) was $72, and if you booked on Delta's Web site it was $62. Try to buy the same ticket without the one-day sale, and you're looking at a $140 bill.

How do you spot these moneysaving opportunities? Look for these fare sales and plan your trip around them. Air carriers offer a number of sales either online or by calling their toll-free phone reservations number. Sometimes the rates may also be available through a travel agent, but airlines strongly prefer that you book through them - specifically, on their Web site - because it lowers the carrier's distribution costs. And that makes their yield management systems very happy.

JWR contributor Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman. Click here to visit his site. Click here to sign up for his newsletter. Comment by clicking here.


04/03/03: Airlines can stay afloat on their own during this war
02/06/03: No Point in Collecting Miles?
01/29/03: Are stubby stewardesses affecting the safety of flights?

© 2003, Christopher Elliott