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Six Rules to Win the Airfare Game in 1989
December 15, 1988 -- There’s good news and bad news about the air-fare outlook in 1989. The bad news: you will pay more to fly on most routes and you might pay sharply more on a few routes. The good news: on the average, you won’t pay nearly as much as many pundits were predicting just a few months ago.

“Average fares may raise five percent, about what the general inflation rate is likely to be,” says the pricing chief of a major U.S. airline. “And there will be price wars. They may not be as dramatic as they used to be, and restrictions may be more severe, but smart shoppers will still find some real deals.”

That modest forecast is in stark contrast to two spates of hysterical “sharply rising airfare” stories that appeared in many newspapers last fall. A much-quoted Wall Street Journal story, for example, reported “horrible news for travelers,” and suggested low fares and price wars were gone forever. Yet fares plummeted just days after that story appeared. Then, in late November, a much publicized attempt to eliminate discount fares fizzled and was almost immediately followed by an announcement that some fares would be cut in January, as usual.

But travelers hunting for discounts shouldn’t be overconfident. Eight carriers now control 90 percent of the U.S. market. Faced with less competition than at any time in the last decade, airlines are making low-priced fares harder to get. The lowest-priced domestic seats available required a two-day advance purchase most of last year. This year discount seats might have to be bought 7-14 days in advance. The lowest-priced overseas fares in 1989 require a 45-day advance purchase, compared with 30 days in 1988. Cancellation penalties are stiffer, too. Almost all of the lowest priced seats to major vacation destinations are nonrefundable this year. And 25 or 50 percent cancellation fees are beginning to appear on some higher-priced tickets as well. Here are some tips to help you find the lowest prices in 1989.

Don’t Be Bashful. Airline reservation clerks and travel agents don’t routinely search for the lowest fare, so explicitly request the cheapest available ticket to your destination. And don’t be shy about asking whether you can lower your fare by changing your routing or departure time.

Buy Early, Then Check Again. The early bird doesn’t always get the cheapest fare anymore. Sophisticated airline-reservation computers now automatically change prices around the clock. So buy the cheapest fare you can find as early as possible, but call back periodically to see if lower fares are available.

Don’t Be Afraid to Buy a Nonrefundable Ticket. Airlines will always rewrite your ticket without penalty if cheaper seats on the same flight become available before your departure date.

Watch for Special Offers. Airlines are more sophisticated about pricing these days. Rather than slashing fares across the board, they often rely on regional price reductions, discount coupons and even direct-mail offerings to stimulate traffic. So don’t assume the advertised fares are the lowest available.

Shop Around. The days when every airline charged the same fare for the same itinerary are long gone. So check with several carriers before buying. Moreover, airlines quietly sell blocks of seats at deep discounts to “consolidators.” These middlemen—your travel agent might be one—might be privy to fares lower than even the airline’s own reservation clerks can offer.

Keep Three Basic Rules in Mind. Fares are usually cheapest on Tuesday and Wednesday, highest on Monday and Friday. Business travelers fly early in the morning and between 5 and 7 P.M., so airlines rarely discount fares at these times. Discounts are likeliest on midday or late-evening flights.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

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