Business

Sometimes, refunds fall from the sky

Have you ever bought an airline ticket only to see the price fall and your anger rise? Now there is something you can do about it.

Few customers realize it, but many airlines will give refunds if they cut the price after you have bought a ticket. Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, United and US Airways all offer vouchers for the full price difference – if the price drops $200, you can get a $200 coupon toward a future trip. Others offer vouchers, or cash, after deducting change fees (which can run up to $100). In industry jargon, it is called a “rollover,” and in most cases it only works if you bought the ticket directly from the airline.

The rollover policies have been in place for decades, but, until recently, it has been tough for consumers to figure out when their flight’s price has changed. The catch is you have to call while the lower price is in effect to get your rollover. That is where a new Web site, Yapta.com, has come up with a clever way to take some of the anxiety out of buying airline tickets.

Yapta, a company run by a former Alaska Air Group Inc. pricing vice president, was launched Tuesday. It tracks fares on specific flights you select before or after you buy a ticket. You can use Yapta before you buy to alert you by e-mail to pricing changes on a particular trip, or let you know if the price drops after you’ve bought a ticket and you’re eligible for a refund. In order to obtain the voucher, you need to phone the airline directly. (You usually can’t snare one online.)

Ellen Siminoff, who signed up with Yapta to test the site before its launch, paid $800 each for four tickets from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. A few days later, she got notification from Yapta that the price had dropped to about $400 per ticket. She called UAL Corp.’s United and got tickets reissued at the lower price plus four $400 vouchers. “There’s no way I would have been checking sites to see if the price went down,” she said.

Fares yo-yo based on ticket sales and airline expectations of demand, and the uncertainty and disparity frustrates fliers. Prices sometimes change several times during the day.

Several Web sites are trying to blunt some of that unpredictability. Farecast.com tries to predict whether prices will rise or fall in a market – it gives you a “buy” or “wait” recommendation. Another site, Farecompare.com, offers historical information that can be useful in trying to decide if a fare may drop in the future.

Several Web sites offer alerts for specific markets. Expedia Inc.’s “Fare Alert” is a tool you can download and it sits in the toolbar of your PC and pops up when a lower fare comes along on a route you’re interested in. Travelocity, a unit of Sabre Holdings Corp., has a “Fare Watcher” that lets you pick city pairs and get alerts when the price changes by $25 or more. Orbitz Worldwide Inc.’s “Deal Detector” lets you select only nonstop flights or preferred airlines.

Yapta raises the bar by allowing you to pinpoint prices on specific flights.

To use Yapta, you have to download it on your PC and then it will automatically integrate itself into your flight searches. So far, the tagger works with Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and most U.S. airline Web sites, but not with sites that search multiple vendors like Kayak.com.



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