4 Airfare Pricing Glitches and How to Avoid Them

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TV and newspaper reporters recently found a "glitch" in Delta's computers that may have cost fliers a lot of money. Sadly, such glitches aren't new. Here's how to avoid them.

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CBS station in Minnesota recently reported that Delta Airlines was charging higher airfares to frequent fliers when they logged into their account – and lower fares when they were not logged in. According to MSNBC, Delta claimed that this was “a computer glitch” that had been fixed after three weeks.

But as far back as February 2010, fliers were complaining online to Delta that they were being quoted higher fares when they logged in. Their official Company Representative even addressed the issue and promised to look into it…

Some of those complaining theorized that Delta was slow to fix the problem because it benefited them – it’s easier to sell tickets at a higher price to frequent fliers already loyal to the brand. Or as The Washington Post wrote, “Airlines have long internally discussed charging more to frequent fliers with a willingness to pay.”

This “glitch” wasn’t the first  that Delta suffered – and that benefited its bottom line at the expense of its most loyal customers. I uncovered a problem with Delta’s SkyMiles back in March that didn’t receive any attention until Money Talks News was about to report it. (See Did Money Talks News Make Delta Do the Right Thing?)

So what should you do to avoid these glitches that never seem to favor the flier?

1. Perform multiple searches

Don’t log into your airline when you start ticket-shopping. Stay logged out and compare prices on different carriers. You can always add your frequent flier number when you make your purchase.

2. Search for one seat at a time

Airlines offer many different prices for the same seats. They group these seats into what they call price buckets. Each time one bucket sells out, the airlines quote customers a price from the next – and it will usually have higher prices.

But what if you need two tickets, and there’s only one seat available at the lowest price? Most airlines’ computers will actually offer you both tickets at the higher price.

To save money, always specify one traveler until you find the lowest price. Then, search again with the actual number of travelers and see if the price changes. If it does, you can always book one seat at the lower price and make a separate reservation for the others at the higher price.

Note that this trick also works for booking award seats at the lowest mileage levels.

3. Call to book awards

If you’re using your miles to travel outside of the country, there’s another online glitch that can hurt you: Airlines love to boast of their partnerships with other carriers, but the vast majority have neglected to include these flights in their online award searches.

As a result, you can pay more miles for fewer options if you just look online for award seats. The next time you want to use your miles to visit a destination served by an airline partner, don’t trust their online search engines – just pick up the phone and call for help. If they try to charge you a “telephone booking fee” for a partner reservation that can’t be booked online, ask them to waive it. I’ve found they will.

4. Get a refund

If you made a reservation or purchased a ticket, only to find out soon afterwards that a lower fare was available, try to get your money back.

The Department of Transportation issued new rules earlier this year requiring that airlines be able to “hold a reservation without payment, or cancel a booking without penalty, for 24 hours after the reservation is made, if they make the reservation one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date.”

Bottom line…

Realize that airlines operate their websites not as a public service but as a profit center. Sure, those sites make booking travel much easier, but you need to be just as skeptical about them as you would about a “Going Out of Business Sale” at a local store. You don’t stroll in there and just assume those are low prices, right? In both cases, you need to be skeptical.

Stacy Johnson

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