British Airways announced this week that it is offering a 72-hour “fare lock” service very similar to one already offered by United Airlines. For just $10 on flights originating in the U.S., you can hold a quoted itinerary and pay that same price when you go back to book up to three days later. If you wait longer than that, you’ll have to pay the prevailing fare at that time, which could be higher. Only one person’s name is required to hold the itinerary so you can go back and add the other names later.
For smaller groups and individuals who are ready to buy, you probably don’t need a fare lock. But I think it’s a good tool for people traveling as a group who find a price they like and need time to coordinate their plans or request vacation time. Regret is a powerful motivator. Don’t look back with remorse when the fare drops from $500 to $400. It could just have easily gone up to $600. So if you find a price you like, consider a fare lock to give you and your group time to decide. It’s also helpful to have a deadline as I have lots of experience with family members who delay, delay, delay…
Most of the time a fare lock is not required for any size group, especially if you are booking over a month in advance. This means British Airways’ offer may not work for everyone since you can only hold fares up to 21 days before departure. However, popular routes and days can sell out more quickly. Even if a plane is not full, individual booking classes specify a limited number of seats available at each price. And fare rules have expiration dates such that you could find prices go up significantly from one day to the next (some of them months before departure). Even if there are plenty of seats remaining in the corresponding booking class, the rules for that fare will no longer satisfied.
You can check booking class availability and fare rules using tools like Expert Flyer, and even free services like United’s Expert Mode will give you a clue as to which booking classes have the most space available. This is what most search engines mean when they say “2 seats remaining at this price” even though they tend to keep the specific fare and booking class hidden.
And then, of course, the system can change overnight on a whim if Revenue Management decides to pull a fare from the market or change availability on a flight. This is common in the case of mistake fares, but it affects other fares, too.
Alternatives to Airline Fare Locks
If you are traveling on a carrier that doesn’t offer a fare lock, consider Options Away, which takes on the risk of fare increases. You can buy “options” for different itineraries and pay different prices depending on how long you want to lock in the fare and what Options Away considers is the likelihood the fare will go up. It’s using similar guidelines as I just described, but it uses a computer to model it and build in a profit margin. Because they’re running this as a third party, you can choose from a larger selection and buy options for more than one carrier that fit your needs.
Also don’t forget that tickets sold by U.S. or foreign carriers for travel partly or wholly within the United States are required to include the option for a 24-hour hold or a 24-hour cancellation without penalty when purchased seven days before departure. Different carriers implement this in their own way. Many have gone the route of offering a penalty-free cancellation: United is one example where you have to pay for the ticket up front, but you can cancel within 24 hours and get the money back. American Airlines takes a different approach by letting you hold the itinerary for 24 hours, but if you don’t ticket it within that period you may find that fares have gone up.
I consider the 24-hour hold more customer friendly. If you forget to book during that window, at least you aren’t out any money. With a 24-hour refund you could find yourself paying a hefty cancellation fee once those 24 hours are up.