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Surf And Fly: Navigating Net Fares


Personal Business: TRAVEL

SURF AND FLY: NAVIGATING NET FARES

When airlines started offering cut-rate Internet fares two years ago, most shunned the full high-tech route and still made you wait on the phone to buy tickets. Now, that's changing. Air Canada, Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines--the inventor of Net bargains--now offer consumers the option of buying bargain tickets over the Web (table). Continental and Trans World Airlines will soon do the same thing. And when United Airlines launches its E-Fares program in the coming weeks, it will require deal-seekers to make purchases online and even allow them to pick seats.

With the kind of deals carriers are offering, it's no wonder Internet fares have won a cult-like following. In the wee hours each Wednesday morning, most major U.S. airlines release E-mail or Web site lists of bargain fares on flights that remain largely unfilled. Passengers usually must leave on the coming Saturday and return Monday or Tuesday. The savings can be significant: American recently offered a $130 round-trip from Chicago to Boston--$1,000 off an unrestricted coach ticket and $125 less than the current sale price. A few weeks ago, TWA posted a $250 New York-Milan round-trip fare, about $550 less than a typical advance purchase coach ticket. Other U.S. airlines--such as Delta and Southwest--run occasional online-only sales, and two foreign carriers--Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa--have held online auctions of unsold seats.

So where do you start? Go to www.1travel.com and click on "last minute deals." This allows you to check all the available weekend fares from a given city. You can even sign up to receive a complete E-mail list each Wednesday. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, you won't have to worry about checking Alaska Air, America West, and Continental. A similar service, www.webflyer.com, is less extensive but worth a look.

TINY WINDOW. Because airlines don't release their deals at precisely the same time, you still may want to go to individual sites--especially ones that let you sign up for weekly E-mail. American E-mails its special fares to 1.3 million subscribers each week, including a separate notice for international deals, while Continental and US Airways send out hundreds of thousands of messages.

Keep in mind that the most popular routes often sell out in a few hours. So if you have an E-mail provider that is often slow--like America Online--you may want to check the carrier's Web site or even dial its toll-free reservations number and ask about online fares. Don't call United, though: It doesn't disclose Net fares by phone.

Frequent fliers may get an additional bonus from using online ticket services. American is giving away 1,000 extra miles through June 30 to Aadvantage members who buy over the Web. And United may follow soon with a 500-mile award. Bonus miles or not, discount Net fares are well worth the effort of a few clicks of a mouse.By David Leonhardt EDITED BY AMY DUNKINReturn to top

TABLE

Online Airfare Deals

Unless noted, carriers require travelers to leave on Saturday and return Monday

or Tuesday

AIRLINE E-MAIL FARES LISTED ONLINE TRAVEL

(www.) NOTIFICATION ON WEB SITE PURCHASE FLEXIBILITY

AIR CANADA

aircanada.ca Yes No Yes Can leave Fri.

ALASKA AIR

alaskaair.com No Yes Yes Can return Sun.

AMERICAN

americanair.com Yes No Yes Can leave Fri.

AMERICAN TRANS AIR

ata.com Yes Yes No Must fly weekdays

CONTINENTAL

flycontinental.com Yes No Soon None

KIWI

jetkiwi.com Yes Yes No Can fly any day

NORTHWEST

nwa.com No Yes Yes None

TWA

twa.com Yes Yes Soon None

UNITED

ual.com Soon Soon Soon Can leave Fri.

US AIRWAYS

usairways.com Yes Yes No Can return Sun.

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