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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE FOG OF FARE WAR

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 23, 2005 -- You surely know that phrase "the fog of war." It is meant to convey the imprecision and confusion and, sometimes, the lies, that inevitably attach themselves to the human-on-human violence of armed conflict.

Allow me to appropriate that phrase, without suggesting its moral equivalent, to explain what is happening with the airline-on-passenger violence of the current fare wars.

During the 169 days since Delta Air Lines introduced SimpliFares, which aren't simple or fair but are at least better than what existed, the Big Six and their alternate-carrier brethren have been in an almost constant state of fare war. Within the strictures of Delta's $499 one-way fare cap, there have been at least six fare increases since the SimpliFares launch in January. All this month, the airlines have battled over the $499 cap, too. Even as I write this on Thursday afternoon, airlines are squabbling over a fare increase that could be $5 one-way, several percent on discounted fares, some combination of the two--or nothing at all.

The fog of fare war is so thick just now that rational analysis is impossible. Just consider some of what I found today for one-way walk-up flights tomorrow:
I literally pulled those fares at random. You can find your own army of anomalies without working very hard. Fares are all over the battle map and business travelers are routinely running into incredible bargains and outrageous rip-offs.

What to do about it? Try these suggestions. I can vouch for their reliability--if you accept that everything is subject to change without notice. And the more you assume that the pricing princes at the airlines have gone mad from battle fatigue, the safer you'll be.

ASSUME NOTHING
This unprecedented period of fare instability has mooted two of the only constants in the fare-watchers arsenal. You can no longer assume that airlines will move in lockstep on pricing and match on every route and every flight. And you can no longer assume that the airlines will only attempt to raise fares on the weekend. I've seen stupendous spreads of fares on competitive flights on competitive routes in recent days. And airlines are fighting so tactically on price increases that the rigid weekend pattern has broken down. You need only look at this week's events--United and American airlines loaded fare increases on Tuesday--for proof of that. So I suggest you forget everything you've ever "known" about fares and take each flight as an isolated and unique event.

THE 'LOW-FARE' AIRLINES MAY NOT BE LOWER
In point of actual and comparative fact, purportedly low-fare airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran haven't offered routinely lower fares for several years. They've actually been able to command fare premiums on many routes where they go head-to-head with the Big Six. This trend has accelerated dramatically in recent months. Even on one-way, walk-up business fares, you may now find American Airlines or another Big Six carrier offering lower prices. The alternate guys still have the simpler fare structures, but, on a flight-by-flight basis, you may often find a lower fare on a Big Six carrier.

BE A SLAVE TO DAYS
You know that old saw about fares being lowest on Tuesdays and Wednesday and highest on Fridays and Sundays? Forget it. That's another certainty that's been obliterated by the fog of fare war. Fares aren't just all over the map, they're all over the calendar, too. So I suggest you start most fare searches over at Orbitz.com. Click on the link that says "find low fares for weekends and flexible trips." Then work with the "Bonus Day" option. That will allow you to search up to three days before and after your preferred departure and return dates. Orbitz then generates a grid of 39 fare options for the six possible travel days. On a randomly chosen itinerary between Chicago and Phoenix next week, for example, Orbitz showed a roundtrip spread of fares from $323 to $538. Whether you choose to book your tickets at Orbitz is your business, but the Bonus Days feature is the most powerful fare-search tool available right now.

THERE'S NO BEST SOURCE FOR FARES
Okay, folks, one more time: There is no single best source for the lowest fare. It doesn't exist. No bricks-and-mortar travel agent can claim infallibility. No online booking service can. Nor can any fare-scraping or fare-compare software. And the airlines' own Web sites can be beaten, too. Why? Technical reasons mostly, but also a competitive one: Airlines are continually juggling their distribution patterns and channels. The Big Six carriers especially are in the throws of picking and choosing which Web sites and computer-reservation systems will get which bits of inventory. So if you want to find the lowest fare, you're going to have to work for it and shop around.

SEARCH FOR THE FAIREST FARE, NOT THE CHEAPEST ONE
Don't be obsessive. Or, more to the point: Don't be as crazy as the airlines. Is finding the absolute lowest price the best use of your time? There's almost always a way to slice another $50 off the price of your airline ticket. But it's not worth it if you must squander an extra day tracking down the $50 savings. In the fog of fare war, the best deal isn't the lowest price, but the fare that rationally balances a reasonable expenditure of your money and your time.

LASTLY, LOOK AT FIRST
The most dramatic effect of the fog of fare war is the rampant discounting up front. You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't check first- or business-class fares before you book. You'll be shocked at how often a seat up front is just a few bucks more than coach. (Or, as that Continental EWR-SFO example shows, the same price.) Three major airlines--United, American and Northwest--still won't let you price a first- or business-class ticket off the home page. You have to drill down to the "more options" form with them. But the others now offer you a premium-class pricing option on their respective home pages or they automatically display up front fares with all fare searches.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.