If You're Ready, Set, and Flexible, Try Low-Cost Air Flights

Flying to Mexico from the East Coast for less money than a bus trip across the country isn't possible, right? Well Carlos Albuquerque does exactly that four times a year.

Mr. Albuquerque, a student and scuba diver who dives regularly off Cozumel, Mexico, has found a more consistent source of discount airfares than typical airlines offer.

Dubbed "space available" or "stand-by" travel, it's an option offered by two travel agencies, New-York based Air-Tech Ltd. and Airhitch.

The concept is simple. Often planes go out with empty seats either because the seat never sold or a passenger didn't show up at the last minute. Air-Tech and Airhitch match travelers up with those empty seats.

These two companies negotiate with a variety of smaller American carriers, charter companies, and foreign carriers to sell empty seats at rock-bottom prices. Albuquerque can fly between New York and Cancun for $200 round trip.

There's still the risk of a flight filling up at the last minute. And travelers have to be prepared to make concessions. Yet both agencies have a success rate of 96 to 98 percent in getting customers to their destinations on the first attempt.

Of his 15 trips to Cozumel, Albuquerque, who lives in New York City, has missed his desired flight time only once. "There was a time I wanted to fly on a certain date and they said, 'OK, but you have to fly from Baltimore or Philadelphia,' " he remembers.

Mark Cloe, head of Air-Tech says, "The traveler has to be very flexible in terms of time and destination."

Airhitch spokeswoman Nilsa Bickel agrees that the idea of traveling without a reserved ticket is a little overwhelming for some. "Space available isn't the way the masses are trained to think," she says.

But for those with a flexible schedule and shallow pockets, it can be a bonanza. You can fly one way to Europe from the Northeast for $169 anytime of year. It doesn't matter when you go, when you come back, or if you buy the ticket a week before you want to leave. It's the same price.

Both Air-Tech and Airhitch have similar systems for arranging space-available flights. Passengers purchase a flight pass and indicates a three- to four-day window when they want to fly. About a week before the travel window, the passenger calls the agency and gets a listing of possible flights. At the airport it's just a matter of exchanging the pass for a boarding card if the flight still has seats.

This more economical and rugged approach to travel is gaining in popularity and that's what an agency like Air-Tech is all about, says Mr. Cloe. "It's pretty unorthodox. Air-Tech tries to remove the standard, hermetic way people travel."

But don't expect the space-available flights to revolutionize the discount travel industry anytime soon. Major airlines still have a hold on the budget market.

Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, says the space-available market is limited by the availability of seats. "The problem with that market is they've never been able to cut a deal with a major airline. Most of the space-available seats are on charters and the charter business has been up and down.... Though you can save quite a lot of money."

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