The Risk of Constantly Changing Fares

A friend of mine recently booked travel to Peru and had some trouble finding a promotional fare. It seemed that after finding the low fare the first time around, a short time later it was gone, only to reappear a few hours after that. Although the Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) that collect and share fare data are updated several times a day and an airline may update its own fares even more frequently, his situation is a good example of how risky it can sometimes be to pass up a good fare. On the other hand, if you can put a fare on hold, or book it and cancel within 24 hours, then you might be able to protect yourself a little.

Not being there myself, it’s hard to determine if he was really seeing changes in LAN’s published fares of this was simply an issue with LAN displaying higher fares after he searched a second time. There have been isolated reports in the past that some airlines, intentionally or not, will display new, higher fares each time you re-run a search for a the same flight as though to scare you into buying it right away (or perhaps they know you are really serious about this flight and will be willing to pay even the higher price). In that situation, restarting your computer or clearing out the cookies from your browser may be another solution.

But anyway, he tells the story as well as I can, so here’s his experience:

LAN had been offering a Labor Day sale on their airfare, with direct flights between Los Angeles and Lima costing as little as $849 including taxes and fees. Given how expensive it is to travel to South America, this looked like a pretty great deal. Using their special links for the sale offer, we came to a flight calendar which looked promising enough:

LAN flight selection screenshot

Note the large volume of low fares available around Thanksgiving! This indicated to me that there are a ton of empty seats on these routes right now. The next page seems to indicate that my intuition is correct:

LAN itinerary screenshot

Then, we punched in our selection at 12:50 PM and found that LAN had pulled a bait-and-switch! The new fares were now $300 more expensive/person. This was a huge disappointment, so we called their help line and asked about the promotional fare availability. Customer support connected us to the supervisor, who said, “No dice”. So we called it quits… for a while.

LAN flight purchase screenshot

A few hours later, I decided to give the fare another shot. Guess what? 😀

I knew that fare timing mattered (buying tickets being cheaper on a tuesday than on a sunday), but I didn’t realize that fare prices were changing hour-by-hour! That is the difference 3 hours makes.

It sounds like he came out alright in the end. Has anyone else faced a similar situation, where that fare you knew must be there just didn’t seem to come up? This is one reason I use ITA to price out my fares before I actually try to book them. It gives me a better idea of what actually exists and not just what the airline or travel agency wanst to sell me. Is there anything different you would have recommended he try to get the issue resolved?

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  • Kris Ziel

    A few months back I booked ORD-MSP for someone at around $270, at dinner, I checked again and it was down to $160, so I called United to change it. In the couple minutes between that change and talking to an agent, the price had returned to the original one. Ten minutes later I did the search again and the price was back down to $160, so I just booked it again and cancelled the old one.

    • Scottrick

      In a situation like that, I would probably book the new fare before canceling the old one rather than attempting to change it. It’s what I do with refundable hotels and cars, and the ticket was still refundable under 24 hours. Although to be honest I’m not sure if an airline is so lax about having two reservations for the same person at the same time (I’ve never tried it). So you probably did the right thing.

      • Kris Ziel

        The first time I found the reduced fare I figured it would be around for more than a few minutes, so I didn’t mind calling in. The second time it showed up I wasn’t taking any chances, so I booked the second and called to cancel the first.

        A week or so ago when I was trying to get on a Dreamliner, I booked a trip on it that conflicted with another trip that had some misconnects. When I tried to get it changed they knew I had a conflicting itin, but they cared more about the change feee (which got waived) than the fact that I had two trips at the same time.