Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A New Airline Fee That May Actually Help Travelers

Following in the wheel-treads of the Spanish carrier Vueling, Continental has announced that it will be rolling out an optional, new fee for certain domestic and international flights. Called Farelock, the fee allows travelers to lock in a price on a flight without actually buying it yet.

(Photo by Josh Beasley)
For the cost of a Starbucks coffee concoction ($5) one can lock in a fare for 72 hours; $9 is the price for a hold that lasts 7 days. If, at the end of those periods, the traveler decides, well, not to be a traveler, he can get out of the ticket having only paid those small amounts. They will pay the $5 or $9 though as these fees are non-refundable.

The cynic in me wonders if this is a way to monetize changes that are likely coming down the pike due to new DOT rules. One of the regulations that was being considered this summer, but hasn't yet been announced, would allow travelers a grace period of 24 hours after purchase to change or cancel a ticket (a great idea, since so many folks discover when they get the confirmation email that the ticket they purchased has the wrong name or date on it).

Whatever the motivation behind the new fees, I'm controlling my knee-jerk reaction to the word "fee" and cautiously getting behind this new one. For folks who have issues setting their schedules; who worry about a flight selling out, but need more time to search for fares; or who might need to check whether there's room at an appropriate cost in the area they're visiting before they book, these new fees could be a god-send.

I also have some advice for travelers hoping to use this new service to their best advantage:
  • Lock in your fare, if its domestic, late in the day on a Tuesday: Most fare sales are announced Mondays at 8pm for domestic tickets. The other airlines match by about 3pm on Tuesdays, so buy locking in then you'll have a lot of inventory to choose from, and (hopefully) good prices, too.
  • Don't lock in fares more than 4 months in advance, if possible: Remember, you can only hold the seat a maximum of 9 days without paying. Most fare sales don't occur until about 3.5 months before the date of travel.
  • Stay vigilant after you've locked in: Domestic fares are posted three times a day, and international fares can change hourly. So lock it in, and then get to work. You could save a lot that way.
It will be interesting to see how widely Continental expands this program (currently only some of its flights are covered) and whether other airlines follow suit.

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