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.

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