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Practical Traveler Grab Airfare Deals Now, or Wait?


Recent history suggests that customers should procrastinate. Over the last year, savvy travelers who waited till the last moment were generally rewarded with cheaper fares, as airlines were forced to cut rates to fill empty seats — even for peak holiday travel when airfares typically soar. Plus, leisure fares usually drop after Labor Day, as children go back to school and summer vacations come to an end.

On the other hand, recent deals are almost too good to pass up. It’s rare to see sales in the middle of the summer, but right after the Fourth of July weekend, Southwest Airlines ran one of its biggest sales ever, slashing one-way fares below $100 on many shorter routes in the fall, like New York to Baltimore for $30. Other carriers quickly matched those rates.

But not all the news is promising. A severe drop in passengers is forcing airlines to make further service cuts. For example, Delta announced last month that it would reduce capacity by 10 percent instead of 8 percent, by making more international reductions.

And American will shrink capacity by 7.5 percent, instead of the 6.5 percent it had initially planned. As a result, fares could go back up again, especially if demand goes up as well.

“There’s no history for where we are now,” said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare, an online airfare shopping site that tracks prices. “As much as consumers are struck trying to figure out when to buy, airlines are struggling to price seats.”

Airfares remain relatively low — about 18 percent cheaper than last year, according to Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that also tracks airfare. So the question that post-Labor Day travelers face is, when is the best time to buy their tickets? Lock up current relatively low fares or wait to see if they go even lower?

Most airfare watchers are advising customers to wait. Deeper discounts, they say, are likely in the coming months. “Airlines typically post high fares very far out, but do not start to actively manage them until closer to departure time,” usually 60 days before, Mr. Harrell said.

Waiting is a particularly good idea for flights to Europe, where airlines are confronting “a glut in international capacity,” said Mr. Seaney of FareCompare. Though carriers are already cutting flights on international routes, the global recession will make it difficult to fill remaining seats, he added.

“I’m telling people to be patient,” he said. “If you’re planning a trip for November or December, give it another month.” But one caveat seems to be about holiday travel. Fare watchers agree that travelers who must fly on peak holiday travel dates — like the Wednesday before or Sunday after Thanksgiving — should consider pulling the trigger now if they spot a decent rate. Bing Travel, the new Microsoft search engine that uses the prediction tools of Farecast, expects that fares will rise as Thanksgiving approaches — the opposite of what happened last year.

“Last year was atypical,” said Joel Grus, Bing’s so-called fareologist. When the financial crisis started last September, travel plans came to a standstill and airlines were forced to slash fares for the busy period over Christmas and New Year’s.

This year, he expects prices to follow a more traditional pattern. “We’ll see sporadic discounts, but only for particular dates,” Mr. Grus said, like Friday departures and Monday returns.

If you decide to wait, track fares so you don’t miss those time-sensitive deals. Sign up for fare alerts, offered by practically every travel site from American Airlines to Travelzoo, to receive e-mail messages of deals on specific routes. Twitterers will be glad to know that FareCompare now tweets about deals for hometown airports you specify, while JetBlue and Southwest tweet about general promotions., another price-tracking service, alerts travelers when the price of their plane tickets drop after purchase. That way, travelers can call the airline to request a voucher for the price difference, or pay $15 to have Yapta do it.

Even so, don’t wait too long. Airfare prices today are pretty good. According to Bing Travel, in mid-July the average fare for flights from New York City this September was $264 — down 25 percent from the same period last year. For example, September flights from Kennedy Airport to Heathrow near London were available for $613; a similar flight would have cost $802 last July for September.

Base your purchase on real savings rather than waiting for your dream price. “It’s about consumer air travel psychology,” Mr. Seaney said. Some consumers, he said, have an ideal price in mind — say, $500 for a round-trip flight to Europe — and won’t buy unless they see that price, no matter how good a deal the fare really is.

But that’s how some travelers miss out on bargains. “If you see something that is historically low,” he said, “buy it!”

Published: July 26, 2009
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