Buying Airline Tickets Online
To encourage you to book tickets on their own Web sites, airlines offer bonus miles to first-time users. Continental will give you 4,000 miles the first time you book online at Continental.com, plus a thousand miles for every e-ticket you buy after that. Delta delivers 5,000 miles up front, as does U.S. Airways. TWA and United both weigh in with 4,000.
But both Continental and United's offers expire the last day of this year. So if you know you'll need a ticket on either airline in 2000, you might want to book before New Year's and collect the bonus miles. Other airlines' programs expire the end of March or May next year. But watch -- if one airline extends its bonus period, competitors might, too.
Of course, bonus miles are nice. But more important is getting a good price, and that requires shopping around. I must say, I was surprised a few months ago when my newsletter staff tested airline Web sites as well as generic travel sites such as Expedia and Travelocity. We asked for a price quote on an advance purchase and a last-minute round trip between Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The fares differed by hundreds of dollars. In the case of a last-minute ticket, United's Web site came in first. And, guess what? It quoted prices for two competing airlines! In the case of an advance-purchase ticket, United came in second, once again offering flights on another airline.
With the millions of different fares and flights in the world, it's impossible to say whether one Web site consistently offers the cheapest tickets. Heck, on any given day, you may even be able to find a lower-priced ticket from a travel agent or by calling an airline's 800 number. The Internet isn't necessarily always the best buy in town.
Last week, the name-your-price airline ticket business got bigger. Once, major airlines either didn't cooperate or were reluctant to admit they sold off airline seats on the sly through Priceline.com, the first Web site to let you bid for tickets. Today, most major American airlines are playing that game to sell seats that might otherwise be empty. Now the travel Web site Expedia has joined the on-line bidding business. And two other big travel Web sites, Travelocity and Preview Travel, announced a marketing alliance with Priceline. That trio promises to offer substantially the same service as Expedia, though they haven't set a start date.
One drawback to bidding on line is that you can't specify even the approximate time of day you want to leave or land. You don't know what airline you'll fly or how many stops you'll make. And you give your credit card number when you make your bid, so if it's accepted, you're committed.
Still, if you're flexible, you might be able to grab a cheap ticket. One thing for sure: The Internet has radically changed how we buy airline tickets.
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