May 14, 2010— -- Sandy Lockleer recently spent $1,132 on roundtrip airline tickets for himself and his wife to fly from Seattle to Alaska in August. Then, the other day, the price dropped to $952.
Out of luck? Not quite.
After a quick call to the airline, Lockleer ended up with a $180 credit, good on any Alaska Airlines flight in the next year.
"It took about 10 minutes to do the whole thing. That's a pretty good savings," he said. "Any time you can get money from an airline, you're doing good."
Lockleer took advantage of a little-known provision in the world of airline tickets that allows passengers to rebook their exact same flights if the price drops after they make a purchase.
Now, before you race to the phone and try to get some money back, there is a catch: most airlines charge a hefty fee to get such refunds. Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest don't charge anything to take advantage of a price drop, while other airlines charge $75 to $150 for domestic tickets, and more for international flights. So the price needs to drop more than that change fee in order for you to take advantage of the lower fare.
None of the airlines actually gives you cash back; instead you get a credit good for travel on one of their flights in the next 12 months.
Lockleer has been re-checking airfares for about five years, looking for price drops.
"Oftentimes, I don't get anything back. You just get lucky some times. Every penny helps," he said. "I'm surprised more people don't know about this. I tell everybody I know."
Finding the Cheapest Airfare Available
Rechecking your tickets to take advantage of daily, if not hourly, price changes can be a real pain that only the savviest travelers will do. Luckily there are online services that will do the grunt work for you. Simply register your flight with the service and it will alert you of a refund-eligible price drop and even give you instructions on how to get your credit.
"There's built-in price protection that the airlines have built in, but most people don't know about it," said Tom Romary, president and CEO of the travel site Yapta. "It's really up to the customer to keep checking prices constantly."
Yapta will do that for passengers. Tickets must be bought directly from the individual airline and then registered with Yapta.
Flights bought through consolidators or third-party sites like Travelocity, Expedia or Orbitz are not eligible for such rebates. The booking sites often have their own price guarantees, but they are a bit more restrictive. For instance, Orbitz will refund passengers if there is a price drop but only if another passenger books a ticket on your specific flight through Orbitz.
"There's lots of ways that the airlines do find to extract higher revenues from you, and this is a good way for you to fight back," Romary said. "If you travel a lot, you can really rack up savings."
Mike Freed just saved a few dollars, thanks to Yapta.
Back in March, Freed bought two tickets on JetBlue for himself and his fiancee Kate to fly from Boston to Pittsburgh to visit some friends. The cost: $142.70 for each one-way ticket.
Then last week, Yapta notified him that JetBlue had lowered the price for his flight to $99.70 each.
Freed quickly called JetBlue and ended up with a $43 credit for each ticket.
"I think it's great. I honestly didn't expect my flight to go down in price," he said. "It's unbelievable how well it worked."
Airlines With the Best Ticket Policies
Travelers who book at least 60 days in advance of their flight are eligible for a refund 11 percent of the time, according to data Yapta tracked over the past year.
Travelers who book a flight on Alaska Airlines or JetBlue are six times more likely to get a refund on their airfare than on any other airline, Yapta added, because those airlines don't have a change fee. (Southwest -- which also doesn't charge a fee -- does not share its data with Yapta and was excluded from the study.)
JetBlue passengers snagged refunds 33.9 percent of the time on domestic routes, Yapta said.
There are two time periods when passengers can get a credit.
The first window for a refund comes in your first few hours of booking. Most airlines give passengers until midnight on the day of booking to cancel or change it with no fee. Delta, for instance, gives people until midnight of the day after an electronic ticket is purchased to cancel it for any reason.
Others are a bit more generous. Midwest says that if the price drops within seven days of purchase you can get a refund of the price difference for no fee.
But with fares booked months out, it might take weeks to see a price drop.
All of the airlines will give you a price break if your specific flight does suddenly get cheaper. But it will typically cost you.
While Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest don't charge anything, AirTran and Virgin America charge $75 (Virgin's change fee will rise to $100 in November) and Hawaiian and Midwest charge $100. The five big legacy carriers -- American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways -- all charge a whopping $150 to make changes to your ticket. Prices are higher for international flights.
So let's say you paid $600 for a flight from Miami to Las Vegas. That ticket would have to drop below $450 to make it worthwhile to change it on one of the legacy carries.
"Hoping that airfares drop $150 is not likely for summertime travel. I just don't see it happening for domestic travel," said Rick Seaney, CEO of the airfare-search site FareCompare.com and an ABCNews.com columnist. "Basically, planes are almost completely full for summer. I've never seen so many Cheshire Cat grins from airline executives."