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Why are fares so confusing and where are the cheap fares?

I'm constantly asked by friends to tell them where they can get the cheapest ticket, or explain seemingly bizarre restrictions on their ticket, or how they were sat next to this guy who "paid three times what I did -- what a sucker !!".  You can be sure that if your traveling on a reputable airline, that there usually is a good reason for it. Where to get the cheapest fare....?  it's no secret.  All you do is book as early as possible, be prepared to fly at really odd times, stay over a weekend, sit in a middle seat, near the lavs, next to the engines, eat peanuts drink diet-coke and meet other bargain hunters and airline employees. Also get on over to on-line to the airlines' web sites, or specially designed places like and surf for the best deal (don't forget to come back!!).  You may even get a frequent flyer point bonus, take part in an live-online ticket auction, and book a hotel, car, cruise, flowers, tickets.  These sites really are very good for bargain hunters, as you're doing all the sales work, and not the travel agent.  Remember you can only get the internet fare over the internet.  So go ahead and try it, it's really quite fun.  Any how all that aside...

Here's my top ten list of how to get the cheapest tickets:
  1. Have someone else pay for the ticket (business, rich aunt etc.)
  2. Work for an airline (yes some lucky folks get to fly for nothing or next to nothing)
  3. Be closely related to someone who works for an airline (start enrolling your kids in flying lessons)
  4. Have a friend who works at an airline (hard to find one with tickets to spare)
  5. Trade in your frequent flyer miles (earned on business)
  6. Take advantage of whacky deals like showing up for the flight as Elvis, or donating a case of canned food etc.
  7. Surf the net well in advance of your intended flight date
  8. Call the airline several times, well in advance, asking for the absolute cheapest fare regardless of whether you have to fly on Christmas morning at 4 am
  9. Buy your air fare in conjunction with a group (package tour, cruise, ski etc.)
  10. Be old, young or sadly, bereaved and get a discount
Remember there are other illegal ways to get cheap fares, I'll explain below, but if you're caught (and yes they can and do) you may get a hefty bill, and a solid dose of embarrassment to boot.

What's with all these restrictions? Non transferable!, round-trips cheaper than one-way, hidden cities...!

Remember from my answer above that for the most part, price is related to demand.  What you're seeing manifested on your ticket are all the details of the tactics airlines play to manage demand.  Your ticket is part of a truly elaborate and awe-inspiring system that extracts the maximum economic benefit out of the unwilling and unwitting public.  And there is not much you can do about it.  Here are some of the terms you'll run across from time to time:
  • Non-transferability is simply that the airlines can earn more money this way.
  • Cheaper round-trips than one way.  This phenomenon really baffles some people -- remember that while this is true at face value, your cheap round trip ticket has a bunch of restrictions on it, and was bought several weeks earlier.  Some people buy back to back cheap round trips and merge the two to get around the restrictions that come with cheap fares.  They simply throw the unused tickets away because they are non-transferable.
  • Hidden city fares.  This occurs when it's cheaper to fly to a point further than where you really want to go, or cheaper from before where you want to start to where you need to go.  This way people buy a ticket and don't use the first &/or last coupon(s) in their ticket book.
  • Saturday night stays are simply another way airlines manage demand away from peak demand periods to save space for higher value passengers who want to pay more to get home for the weekend, and make sure the flight attendants have someone to serve coke and pretzels to on Sunday morning.

Time was when you could get away with beating the system and slip between the cracks of a labarynthian system, but nowadays I would not try to beat it. Those same smart computer systems that figure out all that complicated pricing are watching.  If you're caught, the airlines can rightfully charge you the balance of the full fare (very very pricey), or if you're a frequent flyer, they can revoke all your miles or both.


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