Don't look now, but the fellow sitting in the window seat beside you might have paid a lot less for his plane ticket than you did, especially if he did his homework.
But how'd he do it?
Actually, the bargains are out there if you know how and where to look. So let's talk strategy:
* Call and call, then call again. "Fares change all the time," said Dorothy Kopp, a travel agent in Winter Park, Fla. She cited a recent example: When she checked the fare from Orlando to Providence, R.I., before lunch, it was $197 round-trip. She checked again that afternoon, and the price had gone down $19. "It's so unpredictable," she said.
* Book it now. When you find a fare that's lower than usual for the route, don't hesitate to book it -- good deals can be snapped up by other travelers within minutes.
* Try a low-cost carrier. Upstarts such as Airtran Airways, American Trans Air, Frontier and Kiwi sometimes slash fares to win passengers from larger airlines, Kopp said. This is very likely to happen when an upstart airline begins flying a new route that more established airlines already fly.
* Play the waiting game. If you know you want to go to, say, San Francisco, but you find the fare a little too high, wait until the airlines battle it out in a fare war. If one carrier drops prices to the West Coast, it's a good bet that other airlines will meet or undercut those fares. Fare sales are advertised on TV and radio and in newspapers, so keep your eyes and ears open.
* Plan ahead and stay the weekend. You'll pay substantially more for a ticket that doesn't come with restrictions, such as three-week advance purchase and Saturday-night stay-over requirements.
* Travel midweek. Airlines often have more seats available on Tuesday and Wednesday flights, when demand slacks off. And when demand falls, so do prices.
* Check out coupons. Most major airlines offer senior coupons that can cut the amount you pay for a fare. Some even offer companion fares that offer substantial discounts to a person traveling with a senior.
Also look for coupons good for discounts on Continental flights in Entertainment coupon books. The books cost from $25 to $45; call 800-445-4137.
Airlines sometimes join with retailers or manufacturers to offer coupons when you buy products. So keep a lookout for such deals when you're shopping.
* Sign up for e-mail. Many airlines notify consumers via e-mail of last-minute discounted fares. Notice is usually sent on Tuesdays or Wednesdays for deals good for that weekend. Here are some of the airlines that offer e-mail deals: AirTran Airways (www.airtran.com), American Airlines (www.aa.com), Continental (www.continental.com), Northwest (www.northwestairline.com), Southwest (www.southwest.com), TWA (www.twa.com), United (www.ual.com), and USAirways (www.usairways.com).
Best Fares magazine also compiles airlines' last-minute offerings at its Web site: www.bestfares.com
* Avoid high-season travel. You'll pay more to fly to, say, Europe in the summer or the Caribbean in the winter. Instead, try to travel in the off months or the "shoulder" season -- the time between low and high seasons.
"Domestically, typically, we usually have a slump after summer vacation and before travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Kopp. You'll find more good U.S. deals from mid-January to just before spring break in March.
But don't expect to get a good fare to Denver for a class reunion in February. It may just be cold and snowy to you, but it's prime season for skiers.
"Airfares are basically like Wall Street; anything can affect them. And it doesn't appear to make any sense," said Kopp.
Norwegian Cruise Lines is offering almost all of its 1999 sailings at a discount. The line's "Sale of All Sails" is offering a minimum half-price companion fare and a two-category upgrade for deposited reservations through Feb. 28.
Delta Air Lines' business class will be in flux from now until next summer on flights to Europe, Asia and Brazil as the company phases in a service called Business Elite.
Replacing both first class and existing business class on those routes, Business Elite is described as a premium service at business-class fares. It will feature new sleeper seats with more leg room than the old business class; the seats will have electric controls for reclining and other adjustments, and personal video screens. They will also have hookups for laptop computers, and no passenger will be more than a seat away from an aisle.
The airline is reconfiguring 57 planes and will also have the new seating on 14 Boeing 777s scheduled for delivery starting in the spring.
The airline stopped selling first-class tickets on the affected routes this month, and passengers who buy business-class tickets while the transition takes place may wind up in first-class seats, in the old business-class seats or in one of the reconfigured cabins.
In any case, cabin service will be the same as in Delta's old business class until spring, when a new Business Elite meal service will offer a choice of four entrees (including a vegetarian option) and a self- service station for snacks.
The airline decided to introduce the new service, which is costing about $314 million, because of the larger size and faster growth of the business-class market, compared with first class.
The folks who bring you Interhostel, aimed at adults over 50, also have a family-oriented program called Familyhostel, and this year's programs include France, Austria, Switzerland, Wales, Italy, Scotland, Costa Rica, Czech Republic and, for the first time, a U.S. destination -- New England. The programs are sponsored by the University of New Hampshire and feature educational travel with recreational, cultural and social activities for the whole family.
For a catalog, call 800-733-9753 or visit the Web site at www.learn.unh.edu.
Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry is offering four-day Northwoods Dogsled Adventures, which take travelers through the backwoods of Superior National Forest. Participants begin with a daylong crash course in dog sledding, then embark on a series of fast-paced runs through the trail system. Heated wall tents (yurts) provide comfy lodging at night. Trips are Feb. 12-15 and March 4-7; cost is $745. Information: 800-728-0719.
-- From wire reports
Pub Date: 01/31/99