As Airfares Fall, Save Even After Buying
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By MICHELLE HIGGINS
Published: March 29, 2009
Update: United's Web site now says the airline will charge a $150 "administrative fee" to change your ticket to a lower fare for purchases made on or after March 20.
Have you ever booked a trip only to see the price drop afterward? Or have you recently received a refund? Share your stories.
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TRAVEL sellers have been desperately cutting prices in an effort to fill empty airline seats and hotel beds. From the start of the year through March 10, major airlines advertised 52 sales, up from roughly 35 during the comparable period in 2008, according to Farecompare.com, which tracks airline pricing.
Likewise, hotel rooms and vacation packages have been heavily discounted, sometimes by as much as 70 percent.
That’s great news if you’re looking to plan a vacation anytime soon. But what if you already purchased your trip?
You don’t have to miss out on the deals. In response to customers’ anxiety over missing out on later, better prices — and to spur travelers to book early instead of waiting until the last minute — a growing number of travel companies are making it easier to get a refund even after you’ve booked and paid for a trip.
Travelocity.com recently began offering automatic reimbursements to customers who book a vacation package on the site by May 31 if another customer books the same trip for less. And Priceline.com is offering a similar promotion for airline tickets and vacation packages booked on its site by June 1.
But even before the recent flurry of such price-protection services, airlines refunded the difference in their fares to travelers who asked. For customers who book with an airline directly, the refund usually comes in the form of a voucher good for use toward a future flight rather than cash. But with prices dropping so dramatically, keeping track of the cost of your ticket, even after booking, can pay off.
That’s what Jim Krusenoski, 44, from Downers Grove, Ill., learned earlier this month. For a trip this weekend, he bought four one-way tickets on United from Chicago to New York about a month in advance, only to see the total price drop to $434.40, from the $598.40 he paid.
“I felt not so much anger but regret that I didn’t foresee a further decline in the market,” Mr. Krusenoski said. “Why the heck did I lock it in ahead of time?”
But after calling the United reservations line and explaining the situation, Mr. Krusenoski got back $41 for each of the four tickets he had bought, or $164, in the form of a voucher. While he was at it, he checked prices for a Hawaiian trip in June that he had paid for, also on United. They had come down $170.50 each, entitling him to $682 in refunds.
“The net result is that I have $846 worth of travel vouchers to use for a future trip,” he said. “That’s huge.”
Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, United and Southwest do not charge for this nifty service. But others, including American, Delta and Continental, discourage the practice by tacking on a hefty fee — $150 to $250 — to reissue a ticket at a lower fare, which inevitably eats into the refund.
Certain low promotional fares, like limited-sale fares available only on an airline’s Web site, may not qualify for refunds. International airlines and some low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier Airlines do not provide refunds at all for nonrefundable tickets.
But you don’t have to keep track of all of this yourself, as more Web sites offer to do so automatically for you.
Using your confirmation number, Yapta.com will automatically track the price of your ticket, taking the airline’s fees into consideration. If the price drop exceeds the fee, Yapta will send you, without charge, an e-mail message or Twitter alert notifying you of the refund. You can then call the airline to claim the credit or pay $15 to have Yapta do it for you on weekdays.
But if you choose to handle the refund yourself, act fast. After already scoring $846 in refunds through Yapta, Mr. Krusenoski received another price alert indicating that the price of his tickets to Hawaii had fallen another $180, bringing each ticket down to $650. “I was looking at receiving another $720 in vouchers to add to my existing cache,” he said.
But by the time he had a chance to take a break from work and call United, the price had gone back up to $950 a ticket. “You snooze, you lose,” he said.
Over all, airline ticket transactions have declined as travel has slowed, but the number of ticket exchanges resulting in lower prices was on the upswing at the start of the year for the first time in the last three years, according to the Airline Reporting Corporation, which processes transactions for airlines and travel agencies. The number of ticket exchanges that resulted in a lower price in the first two months this year was 67,546, out of more than 22.5 million transactions overall.
YAPTA says travelers who use its site to track ticket prices — whether before or after the ticket is purchased — have received an average of $306 in savings. The site says it makes money through its refund service option as well as through advertising and booking referrals to airlines and hotels.
With Travelocity’s new PriceGuardian promotion, reimbursements can be from $10 to $500, but a customer receives the refund only if another Travelocity customer subsequently books the same package at a lower price before the trip. Priceline.com is offering reimbursements of up to $300 for airline tickets, $600 for packages that include a hotel booking or $300 for air and rental car deals.
Orbitz.com also offers a refund service called Orbitz Price Assurance for airline tickets, with refunds of $5 to $250 a traveler, if another Orbitz customer books the same ticket on the site for less. Orbitz would not say exactly how many customers have received refunds, but Brian Hoyt, an Orbitz spokesman, said, “We are sending out thousands of checks a month.”
Since it started the service last June, he said, Orbitz has detected price drops on more than 4,600 routes.
Even if you don’t qualify to get back any money, tracking the price of your flight after you buy a ticket can still be rewarding.
I used Yapta.com to track a round-trip ticket from New York to Fort Lauderdale on JetBlue that cost me $419.20 last month. I did not get a refund, but I found another kind of satisfaction: The price of my flight had risen $110, I learned, after I bought the ticket.
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