BOSTON — This could be a good week to buy an airline ticket.
A fare war may break out in the next few days, perhaps as early as today, some industry watchers say. Prices on trips taken through the first quarter of 1997, usually a slow time for travel, could plummet.
And although holiday dates will probably be blacked out from deep discounts, experts expect airlines to offer specials in the next few weeks for Christmas and New Year's travel as well.
"There are generally some very good deals to be had in December. You have to look for them," says Terry Trippler, publisher of The Airfare Report, a newsletter in Minneapolis. Many deals will not be advertised in newspapers or on TV, but may be found through a travel agent or on the Internet, he says.
The bottom line for consumers: Now may be a good time to shop, says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares magazine in Arlington, Texas.
Carriers may raise their fares in the days before Dec. 31, when a 10 percent federal excise tax expires, instead of passing the reduction on to customers, he says. When a similar tax expired last year, prices went up, observers say.
If a fare war starts, you can buy now and get a ticket at what Parsons anticipates will be a 35 to 45 percent reduction, and that price will exclude the excise tax if for travel after Dec. 31.
By the time the next fare war arrives, he says, airlines may have raised prices and your savings would not be as great.
As always, though, ticket pricing is complicated. Last week, Lynn Billetta, an agent at Liadis Travel in Newtown Square, Pa., noticed that fares on many routes went up by $100 to $200. When that happens, she says, prices sometimes come down as soon as the following week - falling back to where they were before or a bit lower.
When one airline lowers prices, the others typically follow suit. By waiting a day or so, you have more choices, and can likely get a direct flight to your destination or a cheap seat on the carrier you have frequent-flyer miles with, experts say. Just make sure you don't miss the purchase deadline - anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks later - to get the special fare.
If holiday, rather than February, travel is your goal, it's not too late to find tickets.
"Flexibility is definitely the key word," says Carol Monroe, an agent at Carson Wagonlit Travel in Batavia, Ill.
Agents say you won't find many seats left to warm-weather spots like the Caribbean or Florida, but other domestic destinations are still available.
Travelers can find lower prices, says Parsons of Best Fares, by being willing to shift their departure and arrival dates and or to change the cities where their trips start or end.
For example, a St. Louis to Washington round-trip flight currently runs around $445, he says. But if you are willing to fly instead from St. Louis into Baltimore, about 37 miles away from Washington, it would only cost $114.
ALTHOUGH it's risky, you could also wait and see what specials carriers offer closer to Christmas. This year, Parsons and Trippler say, airlines will likely offer deals in the coming weeks because Christmas and New Year's fall on Wednesdays. The midweek holidays mean travel volume may be spread out over more days, and some planes may not be full. Under similar conditions in the past, airlines have offered specials. But they may be restrictive.
Some specials may be limited to certain days or specific destinations, says David Oppermann, editor and publisher of "Travel Alert Bulletin," in Saginaw, Mich.
"Generally there are not many bargains over the holidays because, it is a prime time for travel," he says.
He advises using an agent. "Having a strong relationship with a travel agent that you know and trust is still the best way to beat the fare game."
A few tips from Veronica Liadis, president of Liadis Travel, are that low-fare tickets usually require purchase within 24 hours and are the most restrictive - so be sure travel dates are locked in when buying. Also, senior citizens (those age 60 or 62 and up, depending on the airline) can get 10 percent off their fares, she says.
Another place to find deals is on the Internet. An airline may offer an unadvertised special at its World Wide Web site to get rid of a small number seats. Parsons says the Internet is best for last-minute weekend trips.