Couple of Tourists Consulting

Getting the best airfare: Two top rules

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

Last month, British Airways announced a two-day sale on business-class flights to London and to a few cities beyond London, valid on flights departing the United States through March 31. “Hmm,” I thought, “Vienna might be a fun place to ring in the new year.” So, that afternoon, I logged on and found that I could fly British Airways business class from the West Coast to Vienna in late December for about $2,100 round-trip, including connecting flights from my small home city to a BA gateway in Los Angeles or Seattle.

That’s a terrific deal, in view of the fact that the regular economy round-trip is around $1,700, premium economy is about $2,000, and regular business class starts at more than $6,000. I even checked to see if the $400 AARP discount on BA business class would apply to this flight — a deal set to expire the end of this month — but a BA rep said it didn’t. (Later, I found that BA did honor the AARP deal — and extended it for another year). Still, a $2,100 business-class round-trip to Europe idea was intriguing, and I decided to “sleep on it” and decide in the morning.

Come Friday morning, however, the best BA price had gone up by $1,000, which was a deal-breaker. But I was still interested, so I decided to check Air France. Although Air France had not advertised this promotion, it turned out the line was matching BA, and Air France still had seats for $2,100 for a slightly different itinerary. As an illustration of another airline quirk, the actual transatlantic flights were Air France codeshares on Delta airplanes.

This experience illustrates two really important “rules” for finding the lowest airfares that often get lost in the minutiae of “tips” you see about buying on Tuesday mornings, buying 11 weeks in advance, and such.

Rule 1. When you find a good deal, pounce. That’s the way my colleague George Hobica of Airfare Watchdog states it, and it’s a principle I’ve been preaching for quite a few decades now. Airlines often offer really good promotional deals, but they come with two big limitations: a short buying window and a limited inventory of seats. U.S. airfare display rules require that airlines offer a reasonable number of seats at any advertised price — a rule designed to quash bait-and-switch price ads — but “reasonable” generally means around 10 percent of the seats, not all the seats. As a result, when that 10 percent or so sells out, the remaining seats carry higher prices. Sometimes they increase gradually in several batches or, in airline-ese, “fare buckets,” sometimes they all go back up to the regular prices. Typically, these airline promotional deals are a lot better than the very best regular deals you might find over the course of a couple of months. So the conclusion is clear: When you see a really good deal, grab it while it’s still available. Wait a few days — sometimes even a few hours — and the deal is gone.

Rule 2. Check the competition. When a big line announces a sale, major competitors often match it, even if they never get around to announcing it. Competitors seldom undercut the original line, but they may offer better itineraries for the same prices. Moreover, sale-priced seats on those matching lines often do not sell out as quickly as seats on the line that first breaks the promotion.

The glitch in both rules is, of course, that you can’t plan on or anticipate an airfare “sale.” And absent a sale, some of the “usual suspects” rules apply. But those rules about timing your buy may shave a few percentage points off the average fare, not hundreds or thousands of dollars that short-term promotions often shave.

Because you can’t foresee an airfare sale, your best strategy is to make sure you hear about any sales as quickly as possible. Sign up for newsletters and alerts from individual airlines, online travel agencies and consumer-oriented information sites such as The more information you get, the more likely you are to find a deal worthy of a pounce.

Oct. 20, 2015

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at) Perkins’ new book for small business and independent professionals, “Business Travel When It’s Your Money,” is now available through or Amazon.)


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