Promo codes may provide the key to the lowest airfares

In June 2008, I asked, " Are airlines saving the best deals for their own websites?" Less than a year later, the answer resonates: more than ever.

The trend among some carriers in recent months has been to drive more consumers to their own branded sites, and the weapon of choice in this war for brand loyalty has been promotion or discount codes, often referred to as promo code fares. They require you to insert a short sequence of letters and/or numbers when booking, and in many cases they're the keys that can unlock the absolute lowest fares.

How do you gain access? There are three main types of promo fares:

• Available online for anyone to use, and promoted at the site and/or through mass e-mail campaigns

• Individually generated deals specifically targeted to registered shoppers via e-mail

• Exclusive promotions advertised only through widget devices, such as Southwest's DING! and American's DealFinder

Recent deals have included JetBlue's 10%-off specials and Southwest's 50% promo code sale. That's right ... half off. In other cases, promo fares signify a specific reduction that can range from $15 to $30 less per ticket, no small amount for a family of four. And in some cases, airlines will allow you to forward your personalized code to a relative or friend.

Hard to find

When it comes to realizing the savings of promo fares, there's a real catch: finding them. They generally will not appear on that travel search site you've bookmarked. One place they will appear, however, is at Airfarewatchdog, a travel search site founded by veteran travel journalist George Hobica.

"We're seeing more and more of these promo fares," says Hobica. "Two years ago, hardly any airlines except Alaska were doing this. In particular, Southwest has been very, very active lately. They've always been very aggressive about driving people to their own website."

Full disclosure here: I've known George for many years and I've written before about his site, both on this site and elsewhere. He's assembled a full-time staff of "airfare analysts" who do it the old-fashioned way—with keyboards and fingers. That may sound decidedly low-tech for 2009, but the fact is the "scraping" technology used by major travel search engines simply can't do it all. In the first place, some airlines—such as Southwest—don't make their fares available for booking through third-party sites. Plus, promo code fares are expressly designed NOT to be found on outside sites. The whole idea is for the airline to entice you to its own branded site, where you punch in a few numbers and/or letters to find a deal you won't find elsewhere.

Ferreting out promo fares can take a little extra work, or it can involve signing up for alert systems and watching your inbox fill up. However, it's becoming increasingly apparent that it's riskier than ever to book an airfare without checking that airline's own branded site first.

Widgets, DINGs, and downloadables

Among the major domestic carriers, most of the technological innovations in the promo fare field have come from the two Dallas-based airlines. Both Southwest and American have developed techie gadgets designed to alert you to special deals.

Southwest actually offers two separate airfare notification systems:

• Click 'n Save Special Offers E-mail. This product delivers "super specials" directly to your inbox, and provides Web-only discounts from Southwest, as well as travel deals from hotel, cruise and car rental partners.

• DING! Desktop Application. This tool can be downloaded onto your desktop for free, and alerts you—DING!—when "deeply discounted pricing" becomes available for the destinations you've customized (up to 10 airports). These fares are exclusive.

Further details about both systems are available at

Two years after the introduction of DING! in 2005, Southwest reported two million customers had downloaded the widget, which produced more than $150 million in sales. But not everyone can partake, since currently DING! runs only on select versions of Windows and Mac OS and is not available on Linux systems. And the downside to downloadables is that some users report that widgets reduce the speed of their operating systems.

As for American, its DealFinder product is a downloadable desktop tool that allows the airline to send you its RSS feeds with fare sales and special offers. You can pre-select your specific preferences, such as destinations, travel dates and how much you're willing to spend, and DealFinder will continue searching and notify you if something becomes available.

But an associate who signed up for DealFinder back when it was launched in 2007 reports she hasn't received any fare updates lately. I asked American about this, and spokeswoman Marcy Letourneau responded: "Because the fares, as you know, are targeted, it's possible that while you may be seeing fewer fares, someone else (who has different preferences, thus receives different targeted fares than you) may be seeing just as many or more. It really depends on the markets, routes, where you live, etc."

DealFinder is available only for Windows users. American says it's working hard to enable Mac users to access the tool "as soon as possible," but the airline can't pinpoint a specific date at this time.

By the way, if you're wondering why some airlines don't just do away with gizmos and e-mails and broadcast their promo fares to the world, it likely has much to do with identifying customer preferences and maintaining corporate databases. As Hobica points out, "Promo codes test the efficacy of their marketing efforts."

Traffic patterns

For the airlines, it's all about driving online traffic back to their own sites. In the past, they often did this by offering bonus frequent flier mileage, but now it's usually done with lower fares. Consider the following branded site bargains found on the Web over the last several weeks:

• Alaska's Winter Clearance Sale featured online one-way fares from Seattle for $59 to San Francisco, $69 to Los Angeles, and $109 to Palm Springs.

• During the holidays, Air Canada offered 15% off fares in all classes for flights within Canada, as well as to the U.S. and international and sun destinations.

You will see major carriers offering promotional fares at times. But the list of airlines featuring promo codes is dominated by domestic low-cost carriers, such as AirTran, Allegiant, JetBlue, Spirit, USA3000 and Virgin America. In addition, low-fare airlines from other countries, such as Canada's WestJet, have employed such marketing tools. This isn't surprising, since one of the ways low-cost carriers stay low-cost is to reduce their distribution expenses. And that means not paying commissions to both online and offline travel agencies, not paying fees to third-party booking sites and trying to reduce the expense of maintaining reservations centers.

The bottom line is that the absolute cheapest way for a given airline to sell a seat is through its own website, and that's exactly what some carriers are focusing on now. Take Frontier Airlines, for example. It regularly offers Online Deals as well as E-mail Alerts at its site. United also offers E-Fares, with e-mail notifications of discounted last-minute getaways published every Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.

In addition, Air Canada offers webSaver e-mail deals on its U.S. site. The Canadian flag carrier posts a variety of Web-only fares as well; last week the webSaver Daily Deals "hot offers" included round-trip fares of $198 from Seattle to Edmonton and $210 from New York to Calgary. Other special offers included $166 round-trip fares from Philadelphia to three different destinations: Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto.

Then there are airlines—both domestic and foreign—that simply offer exclusive fares on their own branded sites, without any codes or widgets or secret handshakes. In recent months, Aer Lingus, Air China, and Singapore Airlines have all offered such Web-only deals. "They're not promo codes," explains Hobica. "But it's the same marketing strategy, to drive people to their own sites."

Can rooting out these bargains lengthen your online shopping process a little? Yes. And in some cases there may be a caveat, such as using a specific charge card to book. But the savings can make it worth the trouble.

What lies ahead?

As for consumers, it still makes a lot of sense to comparison-shop and benchmark airfares on travel search sites and travel agency sites. But the reasons against booking through third-party sites keep accumulating. In addition to price, airline branded sites also can offer these advantages:

• not charging booking fees in most cases

• providing additional flight frequencies on a given route

• providing additional seats on a given flight

• providing better itineraries, including more nonstop flights

So what do such trends mean for large travel agency sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity? "I would be threatened if I were them," says Hobica. "Look, the airlines cut out the brick-and-mortar agencies [through commission cutting] and now it looks like they're doing it to the online travel agencies." He sums it up this way: "If the trend continues, the growth in the OTA [online travel agency] market will continue to decline."

On the other hand, airline distribution dynamics and economics are different this time around, and many airlines maintain extensive marketing and sales agreements with travel agency sites, so don't write off the Big Three of Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity just yet. But third-party sites will need to find new and compelling reasons for consumers to continue to book through them, not just shop on them.

Readers, have you booked any tickets using airline promo codes? Tell us about the deals you found.

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Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at at travel@usatoday. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.