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The Best Time to Purchase Your Ticket

There are travel experts who swear that Wednesday is the best day to purchase a ticket— especially just after midnight and the hours thereafter, when airline computers have been freshly loaded with new fares. Conversely, Friday is the worst day, since airlines test higher fares in the hope that competitors will match. If they don’t, the airline rolls back the fares to their prior level.

Consider Alternative Airports

Checking prices into or out of nearby airports is another strategy that can affect ticket prices dramatically. For example, huge savings can be obtained by choosing Baltimore–Washington International (BWI) instead of Washington Dulles (IAD) or Ronald Reagan National (DCA); Newark (EWR) rather than La Guardia (LGA) or JFK; Providence (PVD) rather than Boston (BOS); Oakland instead of San Francisco (SFO); and Los Angeles International (LAX) rather than Orange County (SNA), Burbank (BUR), or Ontario (ONT). Visit the Web site Traveltactics.com, and click on ‘‘resources’’ for more information and choices. Two factors—both related to competition— influence airfares associated with any itinerary or airport, and create the possibility of lower price opportunities:

■ The presence of a low-cost carrier servicing the route between the two cities. This may drive other major carriers to match the price on some seats, although often only on flights departing at similar times to those of the low-cost carrier.

■ Multiple major airlines competing for passengers in certain airports. Examples include Los Angeles International, New York’s JFK, and London’s Heathrow. Fly the Low-Cost Airlines ‘‘Value’’ or low-cost airlines, such as Southwest, JetBlue, America West, America Trans Air (ATA), AirTran (different from ATA despite similar yet confusing names!), Frontier, and Spirit have made it possible for the traveling public to save billions of dollars. Currently, 75 percent of Americans have the option of flying on a low-cost airline, although some travelers may need to drive as much as two hours from their home to the airport or from their destination airport. Southwest has trailblazed this market niche for over two decades, with its impeccable safety record and consistently profitable operations serving to enhance the reputation of low-cost airlines. JetBlue, the best-funded airline startup ever, took the concept one step further, positioning itself as the low-cost airline with select frills, offering satellite television for every passenger and more leg room at most seats—but no meals (even on cross-country trips) or first-class cabin. Still, it’s much easier to pack a gourmet lunch than a multichannel TV set! Low-cost airlines are now recognized as the single biggest threat to the survival of the ‘‘big boys.’’ Recognizing this, most major airlines have at some point in time set up value subsidiaries—including Continental Airlines with its short-lived ‘‘Continental Lite,’’ United Shuttle on the West Coast, and US Air MetroJet on the East Coast. But none was able to replicate the operational prowess of Southwest, and each one was disbanded. Nevertheless, several major airlines are vowing to try setting up low-cost subsidiaries all over again, with Delta’s Song and United’s Ted the first of several attempts by major airlines to address the growth of low-cost airlines! A list of low-cost airlines serving the United States and Canada is provided in Appendix C, and a list of low-cost airlines serving Europe is provided in Appendix D.

Why Low-Cost Airlines Can Charge Lower Fares Than Major Airlines

The average amount of revenue major and low-cost airlines earn per mile transporting passengers is quite similar, typically being slightly higher for major airlines that also include first-class cabins. However, the biggest advantage low-cost airlines have over major airlines is significantly lower labor costs. Additional cost-saving benefits for low-cost airlines include factors such as purchasing new fuel-efficient aircraft, never providing meals, and using secondary airports which have cheaper landing fees and which are often less congested, thereby significantly decreasing operating expenses. After the September 11 tragedies, which coincided with a slumping economy, business travelers were forced to scale back on high-priced fares, and major airlines came under relentless attack from low-cost airlines, resulting in the bankruptcies of US Airways and United Airlines in 2002, followed by Hawaiian Airlines in 2003. American Airlines came within hours of declaring bankruptcy in 2003. There is widespread agreement that the major airlines will have to restructure their entire business model if they are to survive the onslaught they face from low-cost airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, and Frontier.

Disadvantages Associated with Low-Cost Airlines

There are some drawbacks to flying low-cost airlines. If any of the following are important to you, you might want to steer clear of the low-cost carriers:

■ Some do not have preassigned seating. This has been Southwest Airlines’ most significant weakness.

■ In many instances, they fly into minor airports that can require significant travel time from central locations, for example, Jet Blue (Long Beach rather than Los Angeles) and Southwest (Baltimore rather than Washington, D.C.; Providence or Manchester rather than Boston; Oakland rather than San Francisco). Several European carriers fly out of Stansted or Luton rather than Gatwick or Heathrow in London.

■ Meal service is the exception (peanuts and pretzels are typically as good as it gets!), even when flying five or more hours cross-country.

■ Some do not have frequent flyer programs, or the limited network of cities served reduces award redemption opportunities. (Hey— Southwest and JetBlue do not fly anywhere outside the U.S. mainland, so not even Hawaii is an option!)

■ Few fly long distances—from one major airport to another— without at least one stop, although Southwest, JetBlue, and America West do have nonstops on a few of their cross-country routes.

■ Southwest passengers who have purchased cheaper nonrefundable tickets must pay extra to go standby.

■ Most do not have large fleets or extensive maintenance crews at all airports served, which can be a setback when an aircraft experiences a maintenance problem. Since tickets on low-cost airlines have limited transferability to other airlines, you may want to be cautious and plan for possible delays or cancellations by building in at least a two- to four-hour buffer between your scheduled arrival and a subsequent appointment.

■ If your flight on a low-cost airline is canceled, you will almost always have to wait for another flight on the same airline or get a refund—but then you’re left trying to find a last-minute purchase on another carrier, which could be expensive. Conversely, major airlines do have agreements with competitor airlines, meaning that a major airline can validate your ticket to an alternative carrier in the event of cancellation. Major carriers may pay for a hotel room if the cancellation strands you overnight, whereas most low-cost airlines will not. Finally, if delay or cancellation of your low-cost airline flight results in a missed connection with another airline (such as when connecting to a cross-Atlantic flight), the responsible airline will owe you nothing. However, a missed connection when transferring flights within the same major airline will get you rescheduled to the next available flight at no extra charge.

■ In Europe, low-cost airlines charge significant amounts for excess baggage. For example, Ryanair levies $6 per kilo for anything over 33 pounds. This restriction could mean that U.S. travelers, who are accustomed to a two-suitcase allowance, could incur a hefty baggage charge!

■ With the exception of Southwest and JetBlue, low-cost airlines have been known to operate with precarious financial support. Names that disappeared around the turn of the century include ValueJet, Sun, Pro-Air, Kiwi, Tower, Vanguard, National, People Express, and Eastwind Airlines. Make sure you pay only with a credit card for ALERT If a low-cost airline should disrupt service shortly before you travel, the cost of purchasing a last-minute fare on another airline may be prohibitive. Occasionally, a price break is given by another carrier to those who are victims of unusual circumstances, or there may be a law requiring other carriers who service the same route to pick up the slack, usually with some administrative fee tacked on. But don’t count on much sympathy from the major airlines! travel within sixty days or less, so that you can dispute the transaction with your credit card company if the airline should suspend or discontinue service. Given the disadvantages described above, don’t blindly accept that a low-cost airline offers you the overall best deal. Before you go the value route, first compare prices and perks with your favorite large carrier(s). Where the prices are equivalent to the value carriers, we recommend you choose to fly on major airlines, such as United, American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, Midwest Express, or Alaska Airlines. The exceptions would be Southwest and JetBlue, which have managed to consistently combine excellent fares and on-time performance with financial stability Seek Out Free or Discounted Companion Tickets Some of the best deals on the airlines can be had simply by traveling with a family member, friend, or work colleague. Many airlines offer programs TIP Ebay.com is a rich source of discount coupons for all kinds of travel. However, be careful about purchasing frequent flyer miles, such as Rapid Rewards vouchers from Southwest. Since buying, selling, or purchasing frequent flyer miles is prohibited by airline rules, you are assuming a risk if you violate these heavily publicized rules. that give the second passenger either a free or discounted ticket when travel is confined to the forty-eight contiguous states or Canada. In most cases, companion certificates can be used where the primary passenger travels at any available published airfare, even if the ticket was purchased on a sale. These certificates are relatively easy to obtain for the shrewd traveler who keeps an eye out for the best deals. For example, for just $76, travelers can purchase the Continental Executive Pack, which provides a $99 companion certificate for use within the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada, plus a variety of additional hotel and car rental discount certificates and 5,000 bonus miles. The Prestige Pack, priced at $120, provides similar benefits and 7,500 bonus miles. (Call One Pass Service Desk at 713-952-1630 to order.) The companion certificate from the Executive Pack may be used in conjunction with the lowest published airfare—even if purchased on sale—and does require a Saturday night stayover in the destination city. Another source of discounted companion tickets is the Citibank AAdvantage MasterCard program, which has frequently offered a free companion ticket on American Airlines to travelers who apply and are approved for the credit card. United Airlines’ Bank One Visa card occasionALERT In many instances, a free or discounted companion ticket may require a weekend stayover or have other restrictions, such as blackout dates. Check the fine print carefully. Furthermore, fare restrictions imposed on the use of a ‘‘free companion’’ certificate may occasionally mean that purchasing two regular discount tickets is the cheaper option—be sure to compare. ally makes similar offers. To be targeted for such specials, one should simply be a member of the airline’s frequent flyer program. Certain credit cards, such as the Delta Platinum from American Express or Alaska Airlines Platinum Visa card from Bank of America, offer the cardholder a free or discounted companion ticket once each year— typically mailed when the annual renewal fee is received. The British Airways Visa card has offered a free companion ticket with one paid first- or business-class ticket. Finally, the free or discounted companion ticket must almost always be purchased at the same time as the primary passenger’s ticket. Since it takes 2 to 4 weeks to receive the Executive Pack or 6 to 8 weeks to get a certificate associated with a credit card application or renewal, make sure you take the necessary actions at least 1 to 2 months before you will need to have your certificate in hand.

Other Important Types of Discount Certificates, Coupons, and Vouchers The airlines have caught on to the coupon craze and now mail out a vast array of discount coupons and information about specials to members of airline frequent flyer programs. Since membership in these programs is free, frequent travelers have no excuse not to join the top ten airline programs. A list of phone numbers for reservations, frequent flyer/frequentstay programs, and Web sites is included as Appendix A. However, there are two outstanding coupon opportunities available to savvy travelers that should be noted here: The Airline Bump By far the best coupon you can use for travel comes from getting bumped! Passengers who voluntarily give up their reserved seats on an oversold flight receive compensation for taking a later flight, typically $200 to $400 toward future flights per passenger. (We once received $750 for each member of our family. Refer to the story that opens Chapter 9). Increasingly, airlines offer an outright free domestic roundtrip. The vouchers for discounted or free travel must usually be used within one year from the date of issue—but you can try to get an extension by writing a letter to customer service, explaining why you need to delay use of the opportunity. Use of the voucher may not be permitted during certain blackout dates—be sure you know what you are getting. Passengers who give up their seats typically fly on the next available flight, but make sure you ask for the next flight that is most convenient for you. You might even be upgraded on the next flight; if the airline agent doesn’t offer it, just ask. If an overnight stay is required till the next available flight, the cost of a hotel room may not be covered, but anything is negotiable! Also ask for a meal voucher, a calling card to phone relatives, and a pass to use the airline’s lounge if you are not already a member. Getting bumped has become a popular pastime for savvy travelers, so competition can sometimes be a bit stiff. The only way to ensure first priority for getting bumped if your scheduled flight is oversold is to arrive at the airport early and request that your name be added to the ‘‘volunteer list,’’ either when you check in baggage or arrive at the gate. If volunteers TIP Check out Bumptracker.com, where travelers report their bump experiences on different airlines. are needed, you will be called by name before a general announcement seeking volunteers is made. Finally, if you are bumped from the outbound (rather than return) portion of your trip, make sure that the return portion of your ticket is unchanged by having an airline staff person actually go in and check your computer record. There are occasions where the return portion will be deleted from an airline computer if you do not fly the outbound segment as originally ticketed, because the system sees you as a ‘‘no-show’’ with respect to the entire reservation.