Air Ticket Buying Strategy

If you have been waiting for a fare war to buy airline tickets to Europe this summer, you may have been left at the gate. The time to buy was in February, March and April. Many assumed after 9/11 that a reeling airline industry would be begging for customers and very low ticket prices would follow. It hasn't happened that way. Though air travel across the Atlantic is down this year, the price of tickets is higher and likely to stay that way, at least into mid-October. After that, some $450 to $550 fares will return.

The main reason is the lack of capacity. There just aren't as many seats as last year. Counterbalancing a fairly strong demand from leisure travelers is the economy and 9/11. Both of which have thinned the ranks of business fliers who buy expensive first-class, business, and, because they often travel on short notice, full-fare economy tickets. Until demand from this more profitable market segment improves, airlines are reluctant to spend money to add flights.

A question we are frequently asked is "when do I purchase tickets?" Is it best to buy early when prices are low or wait until the airlines can't fill their seats and slash fares? Frankly, in 16 years we've never been able to satisfactorily resolve that dilemma. But now our travel department's experience in marketing consolidator air tickets over the past two years has taught us a few things about when and how to purchase an airline ticket to Europe.

Though our crystal ball is still cloudy, we have additional knowledge and experience that will make our "best guess" even better. Not only do we monitor the prices of four of the country's largest ticket consolidators, we keep an eye on airline websites and online ticket sellers such as Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia.

So here is our up-to-date transatlantic-airline-ticket-buying-guide. It presupposes, of course, that you are looking for the best price. But even if choice of airline or schedule is more important than price, most of these strategies will help.

The three main rules for purchasing transatlantic airline tickets for summer travel: Buy early. Buy early. Buy early. Over the last three years, and especially during the spring of 2002, those who purchased tickets in the January-March period got a better price than those who waited. And, for the most part, the earlier the better. There were occasional sales in April and May but they were so brief, so restrictive and so isolated to certain markets and destinations that only the most watchful and flexible buyers were able to take advantage of them.

Prices for summer travel marched steadily upward from February to June. Many who turned up their noses at an $800 July fare in February wound up three months later paying $100 to $400 more for the same flight.

Be flexible regarding travel dates: Though it's not always possible, try to have a broad range of dates on which you can travel. There may be only a dozen cheap tickets on the flight you want but if you can fly any day within a 10-day period your chances of getting one of those cheap tickets increases by a factor of 10. Traveling on a weekend day, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, in most cases will raise your ticket price by about $25 - $50 if you fly both directions on those days.

Be flexible regarding destination: On the continent, fares to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are usually the least expensive. Munich isn't far behind. Expect slightly higher fares to places like Prague, Vienna, Rome, and Milan.

Be flexible regarding departure city: If you live in a town served by a small airport but are within two or three hours drive of a major airport, compare prices from both. It may pay you to do a one-way car rental (try National) from your home to the larger airport (and another one-way rental upon return) or perhaps leave your car with a friend in the larger city. Also, those who live in certain sections of the eastern U.S. can choose from several airports.

Be prepared to spend time on the project: Searching a dozen or so airline and travel websites for a variety of departure/arrival dates and cities can take hours and days. Especially if your Internet connection is via a dial-up 56K modem. And sitting on hold to get quotes from three or four airlines is another time eater.

You can turn it over to a travel agent in which case you may be charged a service fee. Airlines no longer pay commissions and consolidators usually offer "net" fares which means the agent marks up the price or adds a service fee.

Here's our three-step guide to finding the lowest fares:

Step #1. Register at airline Websites. Most airlines send out periodic emails of special fares available online. American Airlines, for example, fires off a weekly email of low fare offerings. In many cases you'll also find a place on an airline's Website where special deals are offered. You may have to check regularly, however. Try, for example, the ticket auctions on the Website of Lufthansa.

Step #2. Survey the Market. Before you know whether or not a price is good, you must compare it. Start with the big online ticket sellers Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia. They'll give you a good idea of the market. One of them may even have the lowest price. Next, visit airline websites to check prices. Look carefully for links to special deals, which sometimes are not prominently displayed.

Step #3. Purchase the Ticket. By now you know the lay of the land. It's almost time to make your purchase, but first you need to check consolidator fares (Gemütlichkeit, 800-521-6722). Usually, but not always, they'll be lower than what you've seen so far. At this point, most shoppers have enough information to make the purchase. Always pay by credit card and, since most tickets have stiff cancellation penalties, trip cancellation insurance is recommended.

However, for those who don't care about mileage awards, which airline they fly, or what time of day they travel, there are two other low-cost options, both online Priceline.com and Hotwire.com.

With Priceline, you enter departure and arrival cities, a credit card number, and then set your own price. If your bid is accepted there is no going back, no refund or cancellation. After your credit card is accepted you are given the airline and the flight itinerary. If your bid is turned down you can try again but you'll have to change your trip parameters. Hotwire works a little differently; it gives you the price up-front and if it's acceptable you provide a credit card. Like Priceline, there is no mileage credit and you don't know the airline or which flights you'll be on until they have your money.

Experts seem to agree Priceline is usually the least expensive way to purchase an airline ticket.

Websites for Transatlantic Air Tickets

Expedia

Hotwire

Orbitz

Priceline

Travelocity

Air Canada

American Airlines

Delta Airlines

Lufthansa

Swiss Airlines

United Airlines

June 2002