Economy Class: All's Fair In Love & Fare Wars

Feb. 20, 2001 -- Plan far enough in advance and you can almost always take advantage of a fare war.

Recently, we've seen a new domestic fare war begin approximately three weeks after each previous fare war ended. If you plan at least 60 days in advance, you have a very good shot at being able to get fare war prices.

The need to analyze each fare war has grown increasingly more important. There are regional fare wars, system-wide fare wars, Internet fare wars and mini fare wars that affect just one city pair (on my site, we call these "Snooze You Lose" fares).

Compare any fare war price with the standard 14- or 21-day advance non-sale fare (ask your travel agent to help you if you don't know the standard fare in the market you're traveling). If the fare war price is 50 percent off the standard fare, you may want to jump on it or wait 24 hours to see what competitors come up with. If it's 60 percent off (or more), don't wait; purchase immediately.

More Than 250 different fares on NYC-L.A. Route

Fare wars pop up regularly because yield management people send out the word that sales need a boost. They're usually initiated at the beginning of the week. One airline starts a fare war by lowering prices on select flights (highly competitive routes are most likely to be the prime focus). Within hours other airlines in competitive markets fall in line. They might match the fares the leader initiated, or they might undercut them. Fare wars increase the already mind-boggling array of prices available on any flight. One recent fare war resulted in a total of more than 250 different fares for a New York-Los Angeles roundtrip, ranging from $290–$2,334.

During the first hours of a fare war, travel agents can be placed at a disadvantage by the airlines. Information on their computer systems may be incomplete. The sale fares may be listed, but the travel agents may not be able to access the fare rules or may be unable to ticket.

Book a fare war ticket too soon and you may pay too much. Airlines update fares three times a day (Monday through Friday), usually at 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. EST. On weekends they update at 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. When a major airline starts a fare war they try to take advantage of the 8 p.m. weekday or 3 p.m. Sunday update so the competition is prevented from matching fares until the following update time — 12:30 p.m. the next day. This gives the originator a 24-hour price and advertising advantage. It can pay to wait a day or so after a fare war starts to allow the airlines time to scramble, meet prices, open up seats and try to come up with advantages that scoop the airline that initiated the price cuts.

Don't be fooled by airline ads that say they'll honor a lower fare if ticket prices go down. What they often fail to mention is that you generally have to give them $75-100 in processing fees — sometimes waived if you accept the difference in airline vouchers (Southwest has no change penalty). Unless your fare goes down dramatically, you may not come out ahead.

Don't assume that a fare war price is the lowest available price. A low-cost carrier may have driven the ticket price even lower on a specific daily flight. A specific airline may offer an Internet-only fare priced below sale fare rates.

Fare Skirmishes

Mini-fare war prices (our "Snooze You Lose" fares) get less attention but can save you a lot of money. They occur when two carriers enter into competition in a specific market. Big Air lowers a fare to Huge Air's hub city. Huge Air strikes back. By communicating by computer, airlines slip through a legal loophole in regulations forbidding them to discuss fares among themselves. You can take advantage of these fares if you move fast.

Some fare wars are repeated each year — for example, fare wars designed to fill the last remaining seats for holiday travel. These deals can get you bargains on tickets for holiday travel with just a one-day advance or with no Saturday stay requirement.

International fare wars recur in approximately four- to five-week cycles. There are more fare wars to Europe than to any other international destination. Plan trips to Europe at least 90-120 days in advance to help ensure a fare war reduction of 20 percent to 40 percent. By using a wholesaler or online special, you could save another 5 percent to 30 percent.

Tom Parsons is editor of Best Fares Magazine.