Airline fare sales are a lot like playing the lottery. You have a chance to win big — just not a good chance. You’re better off tracking down airfare bargains on your own.
When I started publishing IBIT almost five years ago, one of the easiest ways to get my heart racing was to find out that Airlines A, B and C were staging a “fare war.”
Airline A would announce these eye-popping airfare reductions “for a limited time only.” Within a day, sometimes hours or even minutes, Airlines B,C — and sometimes through Z — would follow suit. And I’d breathlessly jump on here to spread the word.
Regular IBIT readers will tell you they don’t see such posts here nearly as often anymore. Here’s the reason: Over time, I’ve learned that these “fare wars” too often are far more style than substance when it comes to saving you money.
For most consumers, scoring a major bargain in a fare war is a bit like winning the lottery. Can you hit it big? Theoretically, yes. Are the odds in your favor? Definitely not.
By the time you’ve waded through all the exceptions, exemptions and restrictions, there’s virtually nothing left for you to consider buying. It’s enough to make you wonder why the airlines bothered in the first place.
What am I talking about? Consider:
- Time frame
Usually short to extremely short, the better to try to stampede consumers into making hasty spending decisions likely to cause them to spend more than they planned.
That gorgeous-looking fare to your preferred destination either will be based on the purchase of a round-trip ticket or requires you to pay a higher fare for the return leg. You have to spend a minimum number of days or nights, or stay over on a Saturday. In the case of major cities with more than one airport, the fare may apply only to the one that farther from the city center, which means more expense in ground transportation for you. And on and on and on.
The discounts don’t apply to the airline’s entire route system, only to certain carefully chosen destinations — none of which remotely interest you. Your travel must be started by a certain date and completed by a certain date. And there are blackout dates when you won’t be allowed to fly in either direction on that discounted fare.
And those are the catches the airlines tell you about. What they don’t tell you is that there may not be that many seats per flight available at those bargain-basement prices.
Another hidden catch: If the airline thinks its fare-war sale has grown too popular with the public, it can cut it off at any time, without warning.
By the time you’ve waded through all those airline “clauses,” too often you find there’s no bargain left to be had.
When it comes to fare wars, I no longer believe the hype.
When it comes to finding an airfare at the right time to the right place for the right price, you’re better off tracking it yourself. The Web has lots of ways you can do that.
Many of the more popular travel booking sites — including one or more you may be using already — have airfare alerts you can use. Other sites are dedicated strictly to tracking airfares. Both work in basically the same way.
Just enter your departure point, destination and the amount you want to pay. The site will take care of the rest, sending you email or smartphone text messages to “pull your coat” when the fare has dropped to the level you’re looking for.
(NOTE: When setting your alert price, be realistic. I’d love to fly from LAX to Paris for $100 round-trip, too, but the odds of the fare ever dropping that low are slim to none.)
While some booking sites will let you know when fares drop to your chosen destination, there are other sites designed exclusively to keep tabs on airfares that might prove more useful.
Some even track the rise and fall of specific fares over the course of a year or more, allowing you to follow airfare patterns and time your trip to get the best possible fare.
You can find some of the best sites for both airfare booking and fare tracking right here on IBIT:
- Go to the AIR-LAND-SEA pull-down menu at the top of this page.
- Roll your cursor over the linked marked AIR.
- Roll your cursor over the link marked AIRFARES and click.
Look them all over. See which ones work best for you. Then start stalking those bargain fares on your own.