October 2011: If you can’t predict the future, booking an airline ticket is a gamble. Rates could drop or rates could go up. But what happens when you take an intelligent gamble that they won’t go any lower, book an airline ticket to Orlando, and then discover that you could have saved $100 per ticket if you’d only waited one more week?
About 90 percent of this article will give you options, but here’s a pearl of wisdom: You probably won’t get the lower fare. And if you do get a lower fare, it will take effort and not be a significant savings.
Don’t think of the ticket booking process as a single product – a seat on a plane taking off on a specific date. The airlines negotiate the best price they can get every day by offering different deals. You negotiate by studying the market and jumping in at the very moment you think (guess) that a flight’s times, connections, and price are optimal for your trip. Since any of those 1,000 elements can change in the blink of an eye, think of it as a moment in time. If you’re sitting at a computer and booking right now, you might see seven airlines flying from your city to Orlando, with a total of 30 round-trip deals that cost from $170 to $500 round-trip. That’s today’s reality.
Tomorrow, the price could be $220 to $600. Or it could be $155 to $450. One airline could cancel two flights, knocking the options down to 28 that would, simultaneously increase demand for each seat on those 28 flights. That’s tomorrow’s reality – and no website can offer insider advice on the decisions made behind closed doors at an airline company.
So what do you do if you paid $170 for a ticket – the very best deal offered when you booked – and a fare sale drops it down to $150, which could save a family of four about $80?
Here’s what you need to know generally, but note that every airline controls its seats, and the rules vary by company:
- You must discover the the less expensive fare on your own. The airlines never call to tell you a price dropped. The only way to find out is to keep checking.
- To qualify for a cheaper rate, you must book the same plane with no change to your itinerary, time, or date. If you’re booked on the 10 a.m. flight and the 8 a.m. flight suddenly becomes $50 cheaper, it would be considered a new reservation and change fees kick in.
- You probably have to book into the same rate code. This gets tricky. Each ticket has a long list of rules, such as “must book at least seven days in advance,” and a few pages more. It will have some kind of gibberish code that defines your specific rate, like VS79PN. If the airline simply dropped the round-trip price in your booking code, you apply. If it created a whole new booking code for
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this fare sale, you might get the new lower rate – but don’t count on it.
- Price drops tend to work best with low-demand flight times. An airline could announce a fare sale and open up 30 seats at that rate for the 7 a.m. flight out of Orlando. But it could only open up six seats on the 1 p.m. flight because that one usually flies out full. If you’re booked on that high-demand 1 p.m. flight, the lower fare might be available generally (on that 7 a.m. flight) but sold out or never offered on the flight you currently have booked.
- Each leg of your flight – coming and going – has a fare code. It gets dicey if you can book the lower fare on your outbound flight but not your return flight. If that happens, you might save only half the amount you expected.
- It’s easier if you booked directly through the airline’s website, trickier if you booked through a vendor, such as Travelocity or Orbitz. If the latter, they must take care of the discount for you – and note that this extra work not only earns them no money (unless they charge a fee), it might actually make them less money. If they seem hesitant to help you, push them.
- If you ‘re flying on Delta into Orlando and US Airways out (or any other airlines), negotiating a lower ticker prices becomes much more difficult because airlines have different rules for fare sales even when the prices are identical.
- Airlines might (probably) charge you a fee for changing. If you could save $20 per ticket but must pay a $20 fee for changing, it’s a wash. Many of the big domestic U.S. airlines charge a fee so high that it’s not worth considering, like $150. Change fees are stated in the reams of information attached to your original airline ticket, but few people take note unless there’s a problem later.
- Your refund may not be in cash. It could come as a travel voucher for future trips, though the airlines vary wildly on this one. If you plan to monitor flight costs with an eye to asking for a refund if fares drop, check the rules before confirming a ticket.
Still planning to dog the airlines in case prices drop? Visit http://www.yapta.com/airline-refunds/. The website can help you track price changes after you book a flight and apply for a refund if applicable.