It’s Election Day in the USA, and I’m obsessively watching the returns, so here are a few quick nuggets you should be aware of, if you’re looking to upgrade your travel experience:
FareCompare wants you to go on a mileage run
The folks at FareCompare are running a sweepstakes of sorts, offering the lucky winner the opportunity to go on a mileage run for up to 15,000 miles of travel on the airline of their choice. If you’re just shy of elite status (re)qualification and have time to kill, it can’t hurt to enter.
OpenSkies knocks $200 off fares to Paris
All-premium carrier (and British Airways subsidiary) OpenSkies has a promo code for $200 off flights from New York to Paris if you book and fly by November 30, 2010. Promo code is PAR200DO.
Citibank brings back the 75,000-mile American AAdvantage bonus
Well, that didn’t take long… While the mega-bonuses on new Citibank/American Airlines credit cards ended on October 31, a new offer is already up. 75,000 miles after $4000 spend within 6 months, with no annual fee. Not quite as easy to attain as the last round of offers, but still a fine, fine way to collect some major mileage balances. (via Gary Leff)
Now, back to the polls…
Thinking of traveling for the holidays this November or December? The good folks at FareCompare have mapped out the dates when the major airlines in the US have added “peak travel day surcharges.”
This phenomenon of peak surcharges began last year. It’s getting worse, not better, as more airlines adopt these fees that aren’t technically part of the base fare.
While there’s more to airfares than just these surcharges, avoiding (or minimizing) these fees can make a holiday trip more affordable.
Here’s a snippet for the Thanksgiving dates:
Note that Thanksgiving Day, and days prior to the marked dates on the chart, are surcharge-free. Interestingly, AirTran, which added surcharges over the summer, is refraining now.
Click on the image to see the full post and December date info.
Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, has a column that makes a number of suggestions for snagging an upgrade if you’ve got no status. You’ve heard most of them before — buy an upgrade at check-in or at the kiosk, participate in an elite challenge, or throw in the towel and fly Southwest. Wait, what? Yeah, he really suggests “upgrading” on Southwest by boarding early. Sorry, Rick, but if the seat isn’t wider and has more legroom, that’s not an upgrade…
Also missing from the list: the “ghetto upgrade” of sleeping across an empty row of seats.
Anyway, this post isn’t about sleeping in coach or opting for an all-economy carrier. There’s one suggestion for an actual, genuine, bona fide upgrade that struck me as a little offbeat. Make the gate agent an offer:
Be Alert for Desperate-Looking Gate Agents
Next time you’re sitting around the gate area waiting for your international flight, take a good long look at the gate agent — does he or she look a little anxious? Do you see a pad of paper and a pencil with the agent? You could be in luck.
My friend and co-founder of FareCompare noticed just such a scenario right before he took off from Scotland for the U.S., and he quickly figured what was going on: agents were offering passengers “extreme” last minute upgrade deals. It worked this way: an agent would briefly confer with a passenger, then write a number on his pad — a monetary figure –show it to the individual, and wait for a “yes” or “no.”
My partner was waved over, but he didn’t like the price he was shown, so he suggested his own, lower figure, and it was accepted. In other words, he and his son each got an upgrade to business class worth thousands, for pennies on the dollar. Sweet.
I’ll admit, I’ve never tried doing this myself. But as long as the price isn’t entirely absurd, why wouldn’t this work? After all, this is a perishable commodity, so if the airline wants to fill the seats, they’ll take what they can.
But then again, how likely is it really that you’ll be able to pull off this kind of dealmaking? If the airline has empty seats to begin with, they’ll likely push upgrades-for-sale way earlier than the gate, such as via the online check-in channel.
So the question goes to you: Have you ever actually tried this and made an offer for an upgrade at the gate? Successfully? What kinds of deals have they taken, and what have they rejected?
A couple days ago, I received a “FareCatcher” airfare alert e-mail from FareCompare, and I noticed a pair of very similarly priced fares:
Similar price, enormous difference in distance. Charlotte to Greensboro is 83 miles. Charlotte to Spokane is 2060 miles. A nearly 25-fold difference. Let’s look at that on the map, courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper, for laughs:
Yes, yes, yes, airlines price tickets on more than just distance flown, such as the supply and demand for a city pair. And that often means less-served airports are often more expensive. I get that. There’s an economic logic behind fluctuating fares that isn’t immediately transparent.
But pricing a cross-country flight and a local, instate trip up interstate 85 the same? That’s not helping the airlines’ PR.
Two weeks ago, George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog posted about a seemingly dramatic new change in the ways airfares are collected and disseminated, which he claimed would throw a wrench into the already-frustrating system of regularly fluctuating prices. “[A]irlines will be able to change their fares more often and more quickly than ever before, and consumers will need to keep on their toes like never before.” His suggestion caught my attention. The problem is, it’s a non-problem. The more I thought about it, his post just didn’t add up.
Under the title, “Airfares may change more often than ever in the near future,” George writes that “ATPCO, the folks who act as the airfare intermediary between the airlines and you, the consumer, via airfare distribution systems such as Travelocity, Expedia, and your local travel agent, will soon be implementing real time, instantaneous airfare updates, according to a person who is familiar with the matter.” The consequence of such a change, according to George:
What it means for you is that fares can fluctuate much more frequently than before, which may make shopping for airfares even more of a challenge.
What is means for airlines is that in order to respond to their competition’s airfare increases and decreases, they could conceivably have their pricing analysts work in a 24 hour environment. On the plus side for airlines and the online travel agencies such as Travelocity, they’ll be able to eliminate fare mistakes almost instantaneously instead of waiting for the next fare update, which could be hours away. On the minus side, airlines might have to add staff to their pricing and fare analysis departments, and really keep on their toes.
Right now, airlines file fares continuously throughout the day with the ATPCO clearinghouse, who then distributes those fares to reservation systems at set times (3 times daily for domestic fares on weekdays; once daily for domestic fares on weekends; up to 8 times daily for international fares on weekdays; and 3 times daily for international fares on weekends). Subscribers to those ATPCO feeds — airlines, and the global distribution systems such as Galileo, Amadeus, etc. — pass the information on to their clients, usually agencies. As long as inventory holds up (and if fares are low, that’s a big if), fares will be stable for a several-hour window.
On the surface, George’s account of the possible shift from periodic updates to real-time updates of airfares sounds like a plausible tale, and a big shift in the way the business works. (Except for the “pricing analysts” working 24-7… They have computers that do this sort of thing these days, you know…) But the more you think about it, the more it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to worry about this.
For starters, the concept of live-updated fares in ATPCO isn’t new, so George’s post is a few years too late. It’s been around for at least five years, and I can find evidence of it on the ATPCO website going back to at least February 2007. It’s currently pitched under the name “Instant Subscriptions.” It’s an option for subscribers, not a new standard. So the service is available, but it’s not being implemented. Which begs the question, why not?…
I called Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, who works closely with ATPCO and knows more about their airfare products than any person really should. I asked Rick about the prospects of a shift to an instant-fare-update world. He confirmed my skepticism.
For starters, Rick pointed out, the technical challenges of implementing a system like this are huge. Huge hardware investments. Rewriting software. In today’s environment, this is highly unlikely.
Then there’s a collective action problem, and the issue of fare variation: Let’s assume that some agencies subscribing to ATPCO feeds would opt for the live updates, but others don’t. Then assume Airline A raises some of its fares. If Agency XYZ gets its fares through a live-updated feed, but Agency ABC doesn’t, then ABC will show the old (lower) fares. Now XYZ’s low-fare-guarantee would kick in, because its competitor ABC would be offering the same flight for less. So XYZ could lose money if it offers the live-updated fares. Unless everyone opts for live updates at once, it’s going to be a problem.
More to the point: Even if — if — airlines were signed on to constantly update new fares in real-time, would they want to? What’s the benefit in doing so, if you’re an airline? There are already multiple updates, only a few hours apart, so when one airline lowers or raises fares, their competitors don’t have long waits before they can respond.
And finally, even if the published fare changes, there’s still the matter of inventory. Airlines can publish all the fares they want, but if there’s no inventory of seats to back it up, any fare war is moot.
So is it possible that we’ll see live-updated fares someday, with prices bouncing around like a bank stock on options-expiration day? Sure, if every subscriber to airfare prices joins the fun, and if there’s plentiful inventory to back up each price point. None of this is happening anytime soon.
So let’s not fearmonger (or faremonger)…
Nearly three years ago, this site reviewed the then-burgeoning field of airfare aggregators, also known as metasearch sites. These sites let you compare the fares available across multiple airlines and across multiple booking sites, to help you find the lowest fare. Last time, Kayak came out on top. How much has changed in the last three years?
For starters, there are sites which have folded, some new competitors, and sites that changed their model significantly. At the same time, there has been pushback from airlines and suppliers, some of which have resisted the aggregator model. (The lawsuits between American Airlines and Kayak, which initially resulted in American Airlines no longer being listed in Kayak results, was perhaps the most prominent case of pushback. Since October 2008, aa.com results are back in the results. More on that below.)
The result: The golden ring of a truly complete search, covering all the options and all the providers, is still a ways away. No single site actually finds every flight option, every fare, or every seller.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences between the aggregators. It’s time to disaggregate the aggregators again.
This year, each site was put through multiple tests. Four kinds of itinerary were tested: A large-city to medium-city domestic US flight with multiple carriers offering direct service; a medium-city to small-city domestic US flight with at least one change of plane required; an international flight with a US origin; and international flights (from Paris to Dubai, and Manchester to Madrid) to test how sites do for non-US flights. For each of these flights, I tested a short-term booking (7 days advance purchase) and a longer-term booking (30 days advance purchase).
This time, I compared Kayak, Sidestep, Mobissimo, TripAdvisor Flights, Momondo, Skyscanner, WeGo (formerly Bezurk), Trax, Farecast, Fly.com, and Dohop. Sites which were on the list last time but either folded or stopped doing metasearch include FareChase (bought by Yahoo, then abandoned in March 2009), PriceGrabber, and Qixo.
So which aggregator came out on top in 2009? Here’s the summary, with site-by-site reviews thereafter… (more…)