Bargainhunters find flight options widening

Over the past month, a steady stream of prospective travelers have called the Modern Travel Agency expecting bargain airline tickets.

"We have people calling about $60 round-trip tickets to the West Coast," says Mary Ann, a travel agent with the Johnstown, Pa., company.

Customer expectations are a bit high, in some cases. But most observers say good deals are in greater abundance than at any time in recent memory - ranging from half-price tickets to tantalizing frequent-flyer perks.

Overall, domestic airfares in September were down 19 percent compared with last year, according to the Air Transport Association.

The largess is not likely to diminish anytime soon. US airlines, experts suggest, will continue to offer fare sales every week for the next several months in an effort to boost revenues. Consumers can already buy significantly discounted tickets for travel up to mid-April. In many cases, passengers are flying across the US for 3 cents a mile, with a cost to airlines of 13 cents a mile.

National carriers that fly out of major airports - such as American, Delta, and United - have been strategically dropping fares across the country. Occasionally, one will lower its fare into a competitor's hub to win a quick flurry of bookings. Competitors respond by dropping their rates out of the carrier's hub, prompting each to raise prices back to previous levels.

But the key to finding the best deals, travel experts say, is to fly out of regional airports that play host to low-fare carriers such as AirTran, America West, American Trans Air, and Southwest.

"Even if you don't buy a ticket with one of them, other airlines in the same airport are forced to lower their prices to compete [there]," says Tom Parsons, CEO of travel website Bestfares.com.

Most coach-class flights from Baltimore to San Diego, for example, now cost $180. That's $170 less than most San Diego trips starting in Washington, D.C.

But consumers who fly discount airlines should not expect premium service. Few serve food, board early, or offer first-class upgrades.

Travelers should also be aware that a number of low-fare carriers stand on precarious financial footing. Spirit, located in southern Florida, and Minneapolis-based Sun Country, are examples of small airlines with shaky finances, according to David Oppermann, editor of the Travel Alert Bulletin in Saginaw, Mich.

Those who forgo discount travel in favor of major-city airports can expect significant delays for months to come, experts say. Mr. Oppermann recently faced a queue of ticket holders extending out the doors of the Detroit Metro Airport when he reached the terminal at 4:30 in the morning.

Parking space at many large airports has been scaled back because of the Federal Aviation Administration ban on parking within 300 feet of a terminal. And many passengers spend nearly an hour waiting for their baggage. Layoffs have in many cases hit ground workers.

Another problem travelers face, with larger airlines in particular, is flight cancellations. United, for example, recently eliminated 30 percent of its flights to a number of destinations. "People need to be checking their flights every week, and then every day the week of their flight," says Mr. Parsons.

Reports of airlines' financial woes, and possible bankruptcies, have many long-time travelers concerned that their frequent-flyer miles may be in jeopardy.

Oppermann recommends those stocking a trove of free miles consider buying frequent-flyer protection.

Frequent Flyer Services in Colorado Springs, Colo., gives $7,500 worth of free miles for members who hold any amount of miles with recognized airlines that go bankrupt. A one-year membership, which includes the company's InsideFlyer magazine, costs $119 per year.

For now, many airlines are attempting to lure customers back with a few added perks. Until Dec. 1, many are accepting 15,000 frequent flyer miles to redeem a round-trip domestic ticket, rather than the customary 25,000 miles. Other bonuses include free side trips. America West, for example, will let you stay up to five days in Las Vegas or Phoenix at no extra cost on round-trip flights headed for San Diego from the East Cost.

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