October 15, 2006 in Travel

‘Travel agent for the computer age’

Susan Todd Newhouse News Service
 

Tips

Professional fare-finders know how to spot a deal. While they may not be willing to give up all their secrets, here are a few of their tips on how to increase your chances of finding low-priced air fares:

“Get on an e-mail list with various airlines or fare-finding Web sites. Spirit Airlines, a small carrier with daily flights from Atlantic City to Florida and Michigan, has a reputation for holding occasional, hard-to-believe fare sales. The big benefit of e-mail lists distributed by fare-finding Web sites: Someone has already done the bargain hunting for you.

“Finding a bargain is never easy, so dedicate some time to searching. Saturday mornings can be especially fruitful for bargain hunters, since lots of fares go through a final revision by the airlines Friday evening. New fare sales and special deals often show up Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

“Travel plans may dictate the best place to shop for cheap fares. For instance, a fare-listing site, especially one with a special section on deals, is ideal for the opportunist looking for a cheap getaway. For travelers planning to fly at a specific time, it’s better to check sites such as sidestep.com and farecast.com, which can cull through information from many different sources.

“Don’t sit on a deal. The best sales, including the popular ones held by Spirit Airlines, may involve a limited number of seats, which is why the great prices don’t last.

At Cheapflights.com, Nicole Corrigan is known as various things – deal maven, the diva of deals or, more precisely, the fare finder.

Corrigan, who has been both a travel agent and a globetrotter-on-a-budget, earns a living now by prowling for the lowest-priced airline tickets around.

The deals she discovers in e-mails and unearths on Web sites are listed in weekly, free newsletters published by Cheapflights.com, the online travel search site.

“Airline pricing is either lunacy or inspired genius,” Corrigan says from her office in Boston. “Your best chance of finding a deal is being realistic. You can’t expect to find a deal if you’re looking five days before Thanksgiving.”

As more and more ordinary consumers realize how widely fluctuating airline ticket prices can be, they are becoming ardent fare hunters themselves.

The Internet certainly provides some helpful tools, from individual airline sites to newfangled, robust search engines such as farecast.com.

Corrigan is in a different league though. For starters, she knows a few more tricks – some of which she will happily share – but she is also more regimented than ordinary budget-conscious travelers.

She is online every day, including weekends, perusing 20 different airline Web sites and a collection of online travel agencies before she moves on to consolidators, such as cheapair.com and ultimatefares.com.

“I’ve got it down to a routine,” Corrigan said. “I will do a loop. I probably check them all three or four times a day, because the (fares) are constantly changing.”

Airline pricing is a complicated, imperfect science, and finding a genuine bargain isn’t an easy task. Most Web sites use computer databases, making fare-finders like Corrigan a rare breed.

Only one other fare finder, George Hobica, a New York City-based freelance travel journalist who runs airfarewatchdog.com, is widely known for applying the same meticulous detail to chase down deals, according to Terry Trippler, a travel industry expert.

“You don’t have to have any special fare knowledge or travel expertise,” Trippler said. “You just have to know where to look. They scour for these deals. Personally, I would go bananas.”

Hobica’s Web site generates revenue when visitors book their tickets using one of his affiliate links with Travelocity or United. Cheapflights.com works the same way.

Hobica, who has a staff of six searching for airfares, described himself as a “travel agent for the computer age.”

Like Corrigan, he spends hours – as many as 18 a day – scanning airline Web sites and online travel agencies, including one of his latest favorites, Zuji.com, for international airfare deals.

Hobica is scrutinizing, calculating taxes and checking competing routes before deeming something as a genuine deal.

“It’s comparison shopping,” he says, “and it’s all manual.”

So, what advice do he and Corrigan have for the more amateur fare-finders?

“You have to look everywhere,” says Hobica. “If you find a great deal on Travelocity, go the airline’s Web site. You never know how much you might save.”

“It can drive you crazy, but part of (the pursuit of a deal) is sticking with it and being able to see through the pricing,” Corrigan adds. “When you do that enough, you’re able to spot trends and you get to know what the airlines and travel agencies are doing.”

Comparison shopping also helps provide context, so it’s easier to spot a true bargain.

“You don’t know if they’re offering a good deal until you know what else is out there,” Corrigan says.

She says the best strategy for finding deals is “getting to know all the sites, inside and out.”

In some cases, it’s a matter of clicking on “specials” or some similarly named header that appears on a Web site. In other cases, Corrigan has found that by hitting the refresh button on certain sites, including priceline.com, additional fares will come up.

Sometimes, Web sites are designed with badges – icons or certain words appearing on their pages – that will unlock hidden lists of special fares to savvy, probing shoppers.

“You have to know the little tricks,” Corrigan says.

There are also genuine bargains available for the lucky and the scrutinizing.

“I like Spirit Airlines a lot,” Corrigan says, reveling in the carrier’s occasional $9 one-way fares – which offer no time for indecisiveness.

“Those are real,” she says. “You’ve got to jump on them straight away.”

Corrigan recently found a $7.77 fare from Atlantic City to Las Vegas on Spirit.

“Normally, these sales only last for a couple of days,” she says. “They usually start Tuesday or Wednesday. If you don’t subscribe to newsletters, you’re probably going to miss some of these.”

One of the international bargains she spotted recently: $399 roundtrip from Miami to Buenos Aires on Chilean LAN.

“That included the fuel surcharge,” Corrigan says. “That was really phenomenal.”

Hobica topped that. He found a round-trip fare from New York to London on Virgin Atlantic for $198. Even better, it was available through the peak summer vacation months.

“At first, I thought it was a typo fare, a mistake fare,” he says. “I know hundreds of people who booked it.”

Knowing the difference between what is a genuine deal and what isn’t is part of the fine art of being a fare finder.

Corrigan said she doesn’t list special fares from advertisers. If a special fare has a catch, she will point it out, and both she and Hobica insist a fare only ranks as a deal if it proves to have some availability.

“If I can’t get it,” Corrigan says, “it’s not a deal.”


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