Want to receive stories like this every day? Subscribe to our free Deal Alert newsletter.
"If I buy a ticket now, then later the fare drops, what can I do?" I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, and I know I could make many, many dollars if I had a really good answer. You've all seen airfares go up and down like a yo-yo, and you understandably want to buy in at the bottom rather than the top. But the fact of the matter is that you can't tell, at any given time, whether current fares are at the bottom, the top, or somewhere in the middle. And once you buy, on most airlines you face a big fat penalty to change your ticket—a penalty that is likely to be more than the price reduction on a new ticket.
Fortunately, a few online agencies offer at least partial "guarantees" against drops in fares. The latest comes from across the border. FlightNetwork, the big Canadian online travel agency (OTA), just announced "Price Drop Protection:" If you buy a ticket on that website, and the fare for that flight drops, you can notify FlightNetwork, which will then issue you a credit for the amount of the difference. Or at least some of the difference:
- The best deal is for flights entirely within Canada—The guarantee applies to the entire amount of the price difference.
- On other flights, the guarantee is limited to $100 Canadian.
This guarantee does not involve an actual ticket change—you still fly on your original ticket, at the original fare. FlightNetwork, not an airline, is absorbing the difference. The guarantee does not cost anything extra.
Although it's an attractive option, it's something less than a comprehensive guarantee.
- You have to monitor the fares yourself and notify the program; it isn't automatic.
- The guarantee applies only to the specific flight you booked, not to any other flights on the same route for the same day.
- The refund you get is a credit toward a future flight, not cash.
The guarantee applies to any flight on any airline you book through FlightNetwork, an OTA with a fare search and booking system that looks very similar to what you find on Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and others. Travelers living in the United States can use the system, too, although they will necessarily have to absorb whatever foreign exchange fees their credit card imposes for Canadian transactions, and the guarantee for flights from the U.S. is limited to $100.
The three big U.S.-based OTAs all offer some sort of guarantee, but none is quite like this one:
- Orbitz comes closest: If you buy a ticket, and someone else buys the same exact itinerary for a lower price on Orbitz, Orbitz refunds the difference in cash. The cash refund is a big plus; the big minus is that you get the refund only if someone else buys the same exact ticket through Orbitz at a lower price. Orbitz's program applies to hotels as well as airfares.
- Expedia and Travelocity offer similar programs: If you find a better price for the same trip within 24 hours, they refund the difference and throw in a $50 voucher for future travel.
Clearly, if you buy a ticket well in advance, the FlightNetwork and Orbitz programs are more useful than those that cover you for only 24 hours. You can buy early to lock in what looks like a good price, but if the price drops, you can at least partially recoup.
Of course, you can always limit yourself to tickets on Southwest, which doesn't charge you to refund a ticket in exchange for future travel credit. And Frontier charges $50, which is less than any big line. Also, on a really expensive ticket, you can buy 'cancel for any reason' trip insurance, but that surely isn't free.
Will the guarantee programs expand or get better? That depends on how much market traction the guarantees develop. Keep your eyes open.