To Save on Flights, Clicking “Buy” is Not the End

This is an updated version of an article originally posted to our .com blog, which was unfortunately hacked a few months ago.

Doing a price comparison before booking a trip is standard procedure for saving money on travel.  There are search engines such as Kayak that tally up ticket prices for airlines and third-party sites, and even academic theories on when is the best time to buy.  But regardless of when you pull the trigger, there are still ways to save after making that flight purchase.

The third-party travel website Orbitz, for example, offers a price assurance coverage, which promises consumers that, once they book their hotel or flight, if the price drops and anyone else books the same exactly itinerary (same dates, flights, and restrictions) for less through Orbitz from then on, they will be refunded for that difference. Refund values range from $5 to $250 for flights and $5 to $500 for hotels, and there is no need to submit a request.  Orbitz keeps track of all purchases made through its website, and if you qualify for the price assurance, you will automatically get a check in the mail 6-8 weeks after you’ve completed the trip.

But what if you see lower fare soon after you book your ticket?  This happened to me twice recently.  I spent a while tracking flight ticket prices, and as the travel date approached, finally decided to buy.  No less than a few hours later, though, prices for the same exact itinerary had dropped by around $20!  If this happens on the same day in which you booked your ticket, you usually have two options.  First, you can appeal to the company’s “low price guarantee” policy, which essentially is an offer to undercut competitors’ rates. Many travel and airline sites have this, including Orbitz, Expedia, and even United.  All you have to do is submit a claim on the website with links to the lower fare for the exact same itinerary and wait for customer service to verify it.  Remember to also make several print-outs of the screen with the lower fare, so you have proof if you run into trouble having it approved.  Orbitz’s and United’s guarantee apply only to the day of booking, while Expedia gives you 24 hours to find and claim the lower fare.

If you find a lower fare within 24 hours, another option is to simply cancel your original reservation and book the other one.  Most sites give you 24 hours to cancel without any fees. Third-party sites have a policy of retaining their own booking fees if you cancel, but several of them have not been applying fees for the last two years or so anyway. Doing this is a better option if you are afraid your lower fare guarantee claim will not be approved, or if you have a coupon for another site that can now be used.

Last week, I chose to just cancel my reservation and re-book it.  Earlier in the day, I had booked my flight through Orbitz because it had the cheapest fare for the exact itinerary I wanted (United did not even show that itinerary when I searched for it in the morning).  But when I ran the same search in the afternoon, the fare had both dropped on Orbitz and was now showing on United for the same price.  Orbitz offers a $50 coupon valid on your next trip through its “low fare promise,” but I had a coupon for 10% off a purchase on United (earned through an old United promotion).  I decided 10% off now was better than a potential $50 in savings in the future, since the latter would depend on validation from Orbitz’s customer service.  I canceled my Orbitz reservation online without any penalties, and re-booked my itinerary on United. Ultimately, I saved $50 from what I would have spent had I kept the reservation I made that same morning.

Price comparison does not end when you click “buy.”  If you keep track of prices on your itinerary for another 24 hours, you may find a pleasant surprise.  Who knows – it could even be that the fare on an itinerary you liked even better than the one you booked drops too. And if you book on Orbitz, the search keeps going; their price assurance means you could get a check later on if someone else books your same itinerary for less.  And if you can’t find a lower fare and don’t get any money back, by doing this follow-up you can at least rest assured that you got a good deal on your travel plans.

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Bonus Miles on United to Warm You Up for Winter Travel

In airline loyalty programs, bonus offers and promotions abound – but usually not for the most popular flight routes.  But until March 31, any round-trip flight on United Airlines can earn you some hefty Mileage Plus bonus miles.

United’s “Fly early, fly often and earn big” promotion is offering members of its frequent flier program 1,000-4,000 miles for the first flight taken between January 1 and March 31, 2010, and 2,000-8,000 for the second and third flights taken during that same period.  The exact number of bonus miles will depend on the month in which you take the return leg of your flight, according to this table: Continue reading

Double up on Travel Bonuses this Fall

As travel plans are cut out to save on personal and business costs, reaching a meaningful threshold in a travel rewards program has become less and less realistic for many people this year.  But to give you a boost and keep you traveling, some airlines and Amtrak are giving double points this fall.

Airlines typically have sales in which they give double miles for travel on specific routes.  But this fall, many airlines are also giving double elite qualifying miles (EQM) for travel to any destination.  In contrast to double miles, bonus EQMs cannot be redeemed for travel and expire in the end of the year, but they can help you reach elite status faster.  In most airlines, you need to earn 25,000 EQMs within a calendar year to reach the lowest elite tier, and more for higher ones.  Elite membership not only gives your priority in boarding, seating, and standby, but also entitles you to bonus miles for travel.  Most airlines give 25% bonus miles – which can be redeemed for travel – to members of their lowest elite tier and 100% or more to members of higher tiers on almost any flight.  So think of qualifying for elite status this year through EQMs as an investment for earning more redeemable miles next year.

As covered by Tim Winship from smartertravel, American announced its double EQM deal in early September, and was soon followed by United and Continental.  All three deals require pre-registration and run until December 15, 2009.  Keep an eye out for other airlines that may eventually take part in this competition.

Amtrak is also trying to draw in more travelers by making its rewards more attainable: until December 19, 2009, you can get double points for any travel through its “Double Days” promotion.  Pre-registration is also required, but, unlike the airline programs, the extra points earned can be redeemed for travel.  Amtrak’s program (explained in a previous post in more detail) awards points per dollar spent, which can then be redeemed for Amtrak tickets.  The number of points required varies by Amtrak line, with travel on the northeast corridor requiring the most.

Just because you or business has to cut down on travel this year does not mean you shouldn’t get a shot at reaching elite status or earning enough Amtrak points for travel.  Pre-register for these deals now to reach travel rewards goals twice as fast this fall.

Shop Around for Miles and Cash Back Too

With so many online portals offering miles or cash back if you shop through their website, it pays to look around for the best rewards out there.  So after you’ve done your research for the item you are going to buy and have found the perfect coupon code, you should look for bonus deals on online portals before hitting the purchase button.  You may need some patience to look through them but you will be duly rewarded for that, as the bonuses differ a lot from website to website and from store to store.  Here are four examples:

The Apple Store:

  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 5% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 2% cash back
  • Upromise: 1% cash back
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 3 miles per $2
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 1 mile per $1
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 1 mile per $1
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 2 points per $1

Expedia.com:

  • Upromise: 1% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 1% cash back

Macy’s:

  • Upromise: 6% cash back through August 7, usually 3%
  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 5% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 4% cash back
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 4 miles per $1 through September 6, usually 3 miles per $1
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 7 miles per $2
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 2 miles per $1
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 3 points per $1

Snapfish:

  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 15% cash back
  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 15% cash back
  • Upromise: 9% cash back
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 6 mile per $1
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 6 miles per $1
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 9 miles per $2
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 5 points per $1

As you can see from the list above, bonuses vary significantly, and some stores even have limited time deals.  So if you have the time, don’t just stick to one portal.  In deciding through which one to shop , consider the size of the bonus as well as in which program you already have some miles or are close to reaching some sort of cash back threshold for redemption.  Either way, you will be turning your good deal purchase into an even better deal.

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