Thursday, July 19, 2012

The 5 price traps airlines set for flyers

The Business Journals
Date: Wednesday, July 18, 2012, 10:56am EDT
Airfare wars

Joe Brancatelli Business Travel Columnist

A proposed settlement last week between banks and retailers has opened the door for credit-card surcharges. Guess which industry can't wait to ding you a few bucks for the privilege of using your Visa or MasterCard when you make a purchase?

business travel
business travel (Photo credit: buckshot.jones)
That's a trick question, of course. This is, after all, a column about business travel, and you probably already know that U.S. airlines have been salivating at the prospect of slapping you with another fee for the right to do business with them. …[They] already charge you more if you purchase a ticket over the phone or at an airport ticket counter. Most charge for checked baggage, for seat assignments, for meals, for early boarding, and for changing your reservations. Some even charge for carry-on bags and in-flight beverages. And credit-card surcharges are already commonly imposed by airlines based in Europe and Australia.

But here's the really bad news: … It's the gimmicks you don't know about that can hurt you and run up the final price of a business trip. Airlines, hotels, and third-party online-travel agencies are masters of the secret price bump, the unseen and unexpected add-on and, … shameless and sophisticated computerized biases that target you for extra costs.

Here are five all-too-common price traps to know about and how you can fight back and beat the travel industry at its own shell game.

The loyal-flyer upcharge

Delta Boeing 747-400
Delta Boeing 747-400 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Delta Air Lines was recently forced to admit that business travelers who logged into with their Skymiles frequent-flyer account numbers were quoted higher fares than casual Web surfers. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Delta is alone. …

Whether you believe this loyal-flyer upcharge is a computer "glitch" … or part of the bizarre disdain carriers exhibit for their best customers, it's important not to be sucked into paying more. There is an easy, if somewhat time-consuming, defense: Before booking any ticket at an airline website, check the price against an independent fare-comparison site such as Or make sure you check an airline website's quote both as a logged-in user and as what the carrier calls a "guest." If the fare quote is lower when you're a guest, book the ticket at the cheaper price. Then return to the reservation later and add your frequent flyer account number and other relevant details.

The code-share conundrum

Air Canada 777
Air Canada 777 (Photo credit: Simon_sees)
For decades, airlines have routinely slapped their "code"—a unique two-letter or letter-and-number identifier—on aircraft and flights operated by other carriers. But just because airlines share flights does not mean they charge the same fare ... One representative example: United Airlines puts its UA code on flights between Denver and Toronto that are actually operated by Air Canada. The fare at for a Denver-Toronto flight today and a return next Wednesday: $1,598 roundtrip. The price on for exactly the same flights: $1,068 roundtrip.

How do you avoid the code-share conundrum? …Whenever an airline quotes you a fare for a code-share flight operated by another carrier, don't book until you've checked the price offered by the operating carrier. Airlines are required by law to disclose code-share flights. Just look at the flight information section near the flight number and other operational details.

The Web-browser discriminator (Photo credit: afagen) was recently embarrassed when we discovered that the big online travel agency was serving up hotel choices based on the browsers and computers we use. Travelers using Apple Macs were routinely showed higher-priced properties than customers who surfed to using a Windows-based machine. Orbitz's defense—Mac users are bigger spenders on average than Windows users—is officially called data mining, but a lot of us consider it Web-browser discrimination.

How to beat a site's assumption of what you are willing to spend on an airline ticket or hotel room? For starters, make sure you set any and all preferences to filter results by price. … And if your goal is always to see the lowest price, make sure you now use more than one computer and browser when you're preparing a trip.

The "don't-ask, don't-tell" trick

Bill Novelli, AARP
Bill Novelli, AARP (Photo credit: Civil Rights)
… The entire travel industry's economy is based on discounts off a usually phony "full retail price," so there are any number of deals you can find based on age, affinity groups (some as broad as the AAA or AARP), corporate rates and other factors. … If you don't know that you qualify for a special deal, the travel provider isn't likely to alert you.

How to circumvent the travel industry's don't-ask, don't-tell trickery? Frankly, you probably don't know all of the discounts for which you qualify, but start asking questions when you see a box that says "promo code" or "corporate ID." … Before booking, try a Google search for discount codes. The Web is chockablock with sites that publish the not-so-secret codes that will unlock substantial savings on your next trip.

The class-complexity caveat

Cabina Economica de Delta de un Boeing 757-200...
Cabina Economica de Delta de un Boeing 757-200 (a recently modified 757-200 interior) Mtaylor848 ( talk ) 17:26, 7 October 2010 (UTC)) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
… This price gouge is so obscure that most top executives don't even know it exists. Yet it is fundamental to how carriers price their tickets.

When you think of the word class, you naturally think of first, coach, or business class. In other words, the types of in-flight services that an airline offers. But there is … the "fare class," industry jargon for the types of prices it charges and the purchase restrictions imposed. On any given flight, there are dozens of "fare classes" within each category of in-flight service. And here's the nasty reality: If you book a higher fare class on one leg of your journey, the computers will automatically default to the same fare class on all other segments of your trip—even if lower prices exist. This "mapping" may add hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of dollars to a multiflight itinerary.

How do you overcome the class-complexity caveat? … One way is to price out each flight segment of a trip individually and compare the total price to the combined, all-in-one fare that the computer suggests you must pay for the journey. But that is time-consuming, and you're playing a … game … with airline pricing computers that are specifically programmed to outwit you. A better way is to rely on a savvy human travel agent to book your more complicated trips. They have ways of finessing the reservation computers and "forcing" them to generate the lowest price on each flight segment.
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