Ah, those airline fare games. I don’t pretend to understand the finer points of how ticket pricing works. I know—supply and demand. They may have even covered it in that one Economics class I took about ten years ago. You might find a fare for PHL to LAX is more expensive than DCA to PHL to LAX with the same PHL to LAX flight in both itineraries. Nonstops are a privilege you pay for. For that reason, some fliers use “throwaway ticketing” at considerable peril. Cranky Flier put out a solid primer on why airline pricing is like that. Interestingly, on Southwest usually direct or nonstop flights are cheaper than connecting ones. And then there’s fare wars in which one airline undercuts another.
On occasion, those games result in real advantages to fliers. I’m not talking about infamous “mistake fares” in which some sort of error in the airline booking systems lets travelers book tickets at too-good-to-be-true prices, like $50 transatlantic flights. Of course, they may or may not be honored. The concept seemed exciting to me until I read a persuasive argument by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott that booking a mistake fare amounts to stealing. Elliott’s thesis is universally rejected by the travel blogosphere, as is his outspoken criticism of frequent traveler programs. Still, when a person who makes his living sticking up for consumers against unfair treatment by corporations makes a case for fair play by consumers against companies, it’s worth paying attention to. I decided after reading various articles on the subject that I could not book in good conscience what I knew to be a mistake fare. But this is not the only way to get an amazing fare.
One travel site I follow regularly is The Flight Deal. Every day they post deals from major US cities to destinations worldwide, typically with fares with prices under 6 cents per mile. (A lot of my past flights have cost twice this or more.) Their emphasis is on major carriers, especially those part of airline alliances. I’ve never seen a deal for Southwest or low cost carriers like Frontier or Spirit on the site. Deals on domestic flights, South America, and Asia seem more common than Europe or Australia, but such deals do appear on occasion. On January 19, 2015 I was intrigued to see an entry for Emirates – $404: New York – Milan, Italy. Roundtrip, including all Taxes. Many airfares on The Flight Deal have conditions such as a limited range of dates, availability only on some days of the week, unusual routing, ect. This particular deal had a requirement that two passengers travel on the itinerary. Indeed, the fare for a single traveler would have been more expensive than one booked for two! Two years ago I’d paid about $1500 for open-jaw Philadelphia to Venice and back from Rome in late Spring—now two people could travel to Italy and back for half that price with this offer! Shortly after Emirates launched the sale, United matched the price out of Newark Liberty (also requiring two passengers).
It beats me why Emirates would offer a fare like that. Excess capacity, good publicity for the route, undercutting rival airlines? Indeed, as a “Fifth Freedom” flight (with the flight originating in the carrier’s home country but including intermediate stops in a second country on the way to a third) the Emirates JFK to MXP flight has been controversial from the start, at least among Emirates competitors who fear the loss of market share to Emirates will make the route unprofitable for them.
So now I needed a traveling companion and time off before the fare evaporated—deals like this tend to last no more than a few days, sometimes even hours. My fiancée Rachel was visiting her family in California when I asked if she wanted to jet off to Italy for an extended weekend. She told me I was crazy. After all, she’d have to get permission from her department chair and burn all her personal days. Fortunately her family informed Rachel that she was the crazy one for even thinking about turning down a trip to Italy. I was only able to find one Thursday to Tuesday itinerary in April that worked for both our schedules and which were available with the discounted fare on United for $405.10/person RT.
The next challenge was the fact that the fare would probably be gone by the time we managed to get permission from our bosses to take a few personal days off. Fortunately, with United I was able to pay a non-refundable fee of $17.98 to hold the itinerary for up to seven days, a service known as FareLock. A three-day hold is also available at a lower fee. The fee is not applied towards the cost of the tickets if you decide to book and both FareLock types are only available for United’s own flights, not itineraries involving partner airlines. Interestingly, it seems this feature entered United’s repertoire only after they merged with Continental, which introduced it in 2010. British Airways allows you to hold an itinerary for 72 hours for a $10 fee; I’m unaware of any American airlines aside from United that offer this service. FareLock is of limited use under most circumstances but it was ideal in this case. As I anticipated, the deal evaporated in the days following the FareLock—the low prices disappeared first on nonstop and then connecting flights. Rachel and I were both able to secure permission for the time off and I successfully booked the tickets secured by FareLock. Lest I gloat too much about the money I saved, I’m reminded that a European traveling on the same flights as me in April probably didn’t pay very much more than I did; while Americans are used to expensive flights to Europe, during much of the year roundtrip travel to North America originating in Europe is considerably cheaper.
Since Rachel is not a city girl I decided we’d spend most of our four full days at Lake Como. Located in the Lombardy region of Italy, it is only an hour from Milan. I’d learned of the lake’s reputation while researching a previous trip to Italy in 2013—it’s renowned for the picturesque waters surrounded by mountains, as well as its villages and villas. I hadn’t been able to squeeze Como into my itinerary two years ago, but it seemed like the perfect destination this trip. I’m looking forward to hiking, riding the ferry or hydrofoil, kayaking, maybe even splurging for a canyoning or Via Ferreta adventure.
The Flight Deal is only one site to track cheap fares. Airfarewatchdog is another. Of course not everyone has the scheduling flexibility to pounce on a deal. Next year, I have half a mind to schedule some vacation well in advance and wait for a deal somewhere interesting to materialize!