Jewish World Review May 20, 2003 / 18 Iyar, 5763

Christopher Elliott

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Consumer Reports

Playing the system to win II | In the last column, I compared the airlines' mysterious yield management systems to a game. In this installment of the Travel Tightwad, I'm going to tell you how to stack the metaphorical deck in your favor - and win.

Airfare sales, which were the topic of last week's story, are a great way of getting on the right side of the yield management equation. But if you overlook the other opportunities to play the system, you'll miss out.

Third-party fare sales. These can often involve what's known as "distressed" inventory - seats that are selling slowly. The mark-downs last anywhere from one day to a month, and they offer bona fide bargains: anywhere from 40 to 50 percent off.

For example, a recent Expedia "Bargain Fare" between Los Angeles and Savannah, Ga., was priced at $277. But you can't choose the carrier, you may have up to one connection, and you're not allowed to pick your departure or arrival times. Plus, you have to think quickly: you've got 60 minutes to book the ticket and then the deal expires. If you're willing to jump through those hoops, then you could save a bundle. A less restricted fare on Expedia would set you back by $404.

Keep in mind that you often aren't allowed to collect airline miles, pick the airline or your flight times with these third-party offers. The tickets must be booked through a third-party agency or agency Web site.

Joint promotions. Not all fare sales are offered directly through an airline or travel agent. Sometimes airlines team up with a destination or hotel to entice people to fly somewhere. The deals can last anywhere from a week to an entire season. But you also have to fly on the participating carriers and stay at a designated hotel or resort.

If you're interested in going to a specific destination and want to save money on airfare and other activities, this is a sound moneysaving opportunity. Unlike most of the other fare specials, you often have plenty of time to plan. You can find out about these specials from a variety of sources, including your airline, travel agent or a tourist bureau that's promoting a given destination.

For example, American Airlines and Vail Resorts last season offered a special where kids ages 12 and under fly free on American Airlines and ski free at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone when accompanied by a paying adult. The promotion was available through any city served by American Airlines or American Eagle in the lower 48 states into both Denver International and Vail/Eagle airports.

Every deal is slightly different, depending on where you're flying from and how long you plan to stay there, but it often includes hotel and other bonuses, like lift tickets. (A single-day lift ticket at Vail during peak season costs $67.)

Don't forget the agent. Finding a cheap airfare is part chance and part planning. But there's another element to searching for a deal that could tip the scales in your favor: ask someone to help you.

When Patrick Proctor wanted to surprise his wife with a trip to Hawaii for her 48th birthday, he enlisted the help of a travel agent, who found a fare sale on American Airlines for $346.26 per person. The year before, his tickets to the islands had cost $950 per person. "It was a deal of a lifetime," says Proctor, who manages a glass company in Bartlesville, Okla.

The airlines would like you to believe that all it takes to find a bargain is a browser, but that's not always the case. Travel retailers have access to unpublished fares and specials that don't always show up on your computer screen. If you skip them in your search for inexpensive tickets, you may overlook a chance to save money on your next flight.

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.


05/06/03: Playing the system to win
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