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It happens all the time: You see a great price from an airline, but when you try to book, the lowest price you can find is hundreds of dollars more than the advertised low fare. So what gives?
Short of the recent upswell in airline fees, this is probably the single most frustrating, aggravating, and demoralizing aspect of air travel today. We read about it all the time in our story comments. You see a low fare, get excited, search for your dates, and bam—you're looking at a fare that's way higher than what was advertised. And these fares are everywhere, from the airline offering them to the travel agent selling them, and even here at SmarterTravel, where we report on them.
So why can't you find that low advertised fare?
There are a number of possible reasons, so let's start with the basics: travel dates. Here at SmarterTravel, we make sure we report on all the fare details of a given sale, including the travel dates and valid days of the week. To their credit, airlines are pretty good at disclosing this info as well, though some make it easier to find than others.
Even so, these are easy to overlook when you're focusing on price, which means you may be searching for fares on dates or days not included in the sale. As a rule of thumb, really good fares are typically available on the days people least like to fly—Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and sometimes Saturdays. Why these days? George Hobica, founder of our sister site, Airfarewatchdog.com, explains, "Because business travelers like to leave on Sunday night or Monday and return Friday to be home with the family. Leisure travelers like to leave Thur/Fri/Sat and return Sun/Mon to take as little time as possible off from work."
Blackout dates also come into play, but are often buried in the fine print. All that tiny text at the bottom of sales is important!
But behind what's visible to consumers lies a complex system of fare management, and herein lies the real source of frustration.
Let's say an airline announces a sale with an advertised low fare of $49 one-way on a certain route. How many seats are available at that price? 10? 100? Which dates?
There is no way of knowing, and quite frankly, no standard practice. It could be 100 or 1,000. Or it could be 10. "No one knows," Hobica says. "They use sophisticated computer systems to manage yield."
Making matters worse, most airlines make it difficult to find those low fares. Ironically, Spirit, ye of the 9-cent sale, does a pretty good job of this, often offering fares only on specific dates rather than date ranges, and showing customers which dates have the lowest fares.
Flexible search options, such as the one found on JetBlue, at least let you search a short range of dates or quickly toggle between dates. Some airlines, including JetBlue, will tell you (often in large, bold text) that there are "only X seats left at this price!" But this seems more marketing tool than anything else. After all, just because there are "only X seats left at this price!" doesn't mean there won't be cheaper fares available tomorrow, does it?
So for the most part, we're left to stab in the dark, entering date after date in the hopes of finding that low fare. Grabbing a good deal requires patience, luck, and a quick trigger finger.
The next question, for many, is: Isn't this kind of deceptive? You bet it is. Think about it: When big box electronics stores run their crazy Christmas sales—say, $249 for an HDTV—they will often include some sort of disclosure language, such as "limit 100 per store" or "between 5 and 7 a.m. only." This gives customers a realistic expectation of what they'll get. Not so with the airlines. Heck, they don't even have to include taxes and fees in their advertised fares (unlike carriers operating in Europe). But there are no regulations dealing with fare sales or pricing, or how and when airlines make their lowest fares available.
So what role does SmarterTravel play in all this? We look at an airfare sale, find the lowest available price, and then highlight a handful of other routes, focusing on either good deals or popular cities. We give you as many general details as we can, including the sale's travel dates, booking dates, and blackout dates, and then direct you to either the airline's website or our own fare comparison tool. Unfortunately, we can't tell you if a certain fare is available between two particular cities on a specific day, but we can tell you if the sale offers good overall value.
We also can't force the airlines to be more transparent in their pricing. Believe me, if we could, we would.
Readers, do you have any tips for dealing with unpredictable airfares? Leave a comment below. Thanks!