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Are Secret Codes the Ticket to Low Fares?

These days, some big airlines are apparently channeling Groucho Marx’s trademark “say the secret woid” scheme to get a prize. With airlines, it’s “enter the code and get a great airfare deal.” In an ongoing effort to keep you tied to their own booking sites, some of the big lines give out special promotional codes for fare deals they don’t advertise openly. These deals aren’t available at all to the general public, and especially not to those “aggregator” sites that are supposed to search everywhere for the lowest fares.

Usually I like to be among the first to report on any new airfare development. This time, however, I’m late off the mark, for which I apologize. Rather than take a NIH attitude and ignore it, however, I’ll assume that many of you haven’t yet heard about this important new way to cut airfares.

The airlines’ basic idea is simple: Offer short-term airfare promotions, either broadly to anyone who is interested or narrowly targeting specific audiences. The common factor in all the approaches is that these deals are not “advertised” in the usual sense. Instead, airlines notify you in one or more specific ways:

  • Targeted emails to various audiences. In some cases, emails go to all members of the line’s frequent flyer program; in others, you have to register. Some emails go out only to audiences selected by geography, demographics, or some other factors. In these promotions, the communication includes a “promotional code” that you enter in the airline’s regular booking engines. As of early February, websites for American, Continental, Southwest, United, and Virgin America included a promotional code box on their initial search pages; other lines use slightly different systems.
  • Promotions announced through Twitter or other social media. Obviously, you get these notices only if you sign up for the airline’s programs. These deals, too, may include a promotional code.
  • Promotions sent by direct RSS feed to your computer. Here, again, you have to sign up for the airline’s special notification program, but the offer is direct and opens in the message. Although you don’t need a promo code, the deal is still available to only a limited audience.
  • Recent reported sample reductions ranged from a minor few-dollars-off deals to half-price. You can’t predict, other than they’ll generally be at least a little better than folks not in the know can find.

Many lines also tout Internet-only “specials,” but those are displayed openly to anyone who logs onto their sites; they don’t require any special knowledge or pre-registration. Aggregator sites may sometimes retrieve these deals, but you can’t count on finding them through broad searches.

Given the system, your strategy for getting in on the deals is obvious:

  • Sign up for any email, Twitter, RSS-feed, or other promotional device offered by any airline you’re likely to fly.
  • Regardless of how else you normally search for airfares, always check individual airline sites for Internet specials.
  • I know of at least one online source that regularly tracks and reports on these promotions: Airefarewatchdog. You may find others.

Does all this mean you should ignore the big online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, or the various “discount” sites? Not necessarily. These mega-agency sites cut some of their own special deals with individual airlines, and consolidator fares that some discounters sell may be as good as the best the airline promotes. Right now, during the slump in business travel, the discounters are able to get extremely big discounts on international business-class tickets that can eclipse anything you’ll find on any airline’s own site.

Needless to say, at the end of the day, the process of finding good airfare deals gets more complicated, not simpler. The reward for your effort, however, can be a significant price reduction. Give it a try—look for the code.

What’s your secret to finding the best airfare deals? Have you ever had success in finding a low fare by using promotional codes provided by the airlines? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns

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