So what strategies can help the average flyer get the best fare? Be flexible. If you fly a lot, you know the drill: You'll have the best shot at the lowest fares if you can buy tickets 30 days in advance and you can stay over a Saturday night. You have to be willing to adjust your plans to meet the low fare rather than get the cheapest rate for the flight you want to take. If you tell the agent you want to leave LAX at 5 PM, the fare that meets that parameter may not be the lowest in the market, but it's the lowest that leaves at that time.
Use a travel agent. With dozens of fare deals offered to various destinations, it's crazy not to use professionals, whose services are free or carry a small fee. Any highly competent travel agent should be able to access, within seconds, the cheapest officially advertised air fare on any given route.
However, in practice, things don't always work out the way we plan it. One reason is that some of the no-frills airlines -- Southwest, for example -- aren't listed on the various computer reservation systems used by travel agencies. Airlines must pay to be included in the systems.
Second, depending on the circumstances, the lowest fare may not be on the first screenfull of information the agent sees. You need to find a good travel agent who will scroll down to the different fares and compare them. Many times the more affordable fares will be at the bottom of the list.
Thirdly, the agent may not want to quote an airline that for one reason or another is one they just don't like to deal with. Some people suggest enlisting the help of more than one travel agent. While it is best to establish a relationship with one agency, there is nothing wrong with consumers calling several agencies or the airlines directly for price quotes.
Discounts are another confusing aspect of airfares. Traveling to a funeral? Are you a senior? Are you under 21? Then you should ask for special discounts. If you're attending a convention, the organization may have a special rate. It may or may not be better than the lowest advertised fare.
If you are over 62 (or 65 depending on the airline), discounts are typically 10%, although that may even vary. In addition, the major carriers sell coupon books for seniors offering four or eight one-way flights for a fixed price. The savings accrue mainly when the coupons are used on longer, higher-priced domestic trips. Senior discounts are not available on all flights.
Convention rates are typically 5% off lowest excursion. Group fares are specially negotiated bulk rates are for designated Tour Operators. Corporate fares are 10-35% off full price.
If you are calling around for the lowest fare, don't be surprised if you get different quotes from different agents. The bottom line is, you can call someone at 10 AM and someone else at 3 PM and it's very, very possible the fare has changed -- there are more than 10,000 airfare changes made in the computer reservation systems every day.
So if you like what you hear, go for it. While the airlines are always offering special fares, only a small percentage of the seats on certain flights are sold at that rate. Once those seats are gone, you go into a second level of pricing where there are different price ranges depending on whether you book seven days out or the night before. The closer you get to departure, the more it's going to cost you.
BUT opportunity can knock again. If the expensive seats haven't sold out, suddenly some cheap seats could come back. They want to fill the plane. It's called inventory management. Many travel agencies have sophisticated computer software that constantly monitors for the reappearance of such bargains and alerts agents.
How committed are you? If you subscribe to an on-line computer service, you can keep tabs on air fares yourself, track down the best prices and make reservations. Subscribers to CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy can all hook up to Eassy Sabre, the computer reservations system operated by American Airlines. CompuServe also has WorldSpan, the system owned by TWA, Northwest and Delta. In addition to air fares, the systems also have information on hotels.
Now did you get all that?