Bargain air fares: don't get thrown for a loop

``Some restrictions may apply.'' Those four words could turn out to be a major understatement for anyone trying to find a bargain air fare.

Sure, you can fly from New York to Los Angeles for $99 each way or book a round-trip flight for $259. And you can hop on a plane to Florida for $69 each way. But first you'll have to travel through a thicket of restrictions that may be the most complicated part of your travel planning.

The fine print in the full-page newspaper ads will partly unravel the web of restrictions behind these bargain fares, but it can leave many questions unan- swered.

The fine print often doesn't tell you, for example, that only some of the seats on each plane are available at this fare. ``It's very slim,'' says Kirsten Davis, an agent with On-Time Travel in Ipswich, Mass. ``It may be only 10 to 20 percent of the seats are reserved for the cheap fares.'' On any one flight, she adds, it's possible to have at least half a dozen prices being paid for seats in the coach section of the aircraft.

The tiny type also doesn't tell you that if the airline sees prospects for a lot of empty seats a few days before the flight, it can open up more of them to various bargain fares. This pleases those who missed out on the first offer but displeases those who signed on early and have since lost the chance to shop around for an even better bargain.

And the fine print doesn't tell you that the bargain fare you accept today could be higher -- or lower -- tomorrow.

``It's a real gamble,'' Ms. Davis says. ``If you call today you get today's price. If you call tomorrow, you get tomorrow's price. The airlines can reprogram their computers overnight.''

A few airlines are getting some high-tech help in deciding when to reprogram those computers. James Jorgensen, publisher of a financial planning newsletter in Cupertino, Calif., says at least one airline has purchased a computer software program that will tell it the best times to offer bargain fares, how many bargain seats to set aside on each flight, and the best price to offer. Other carriers are expected to order the software soon, he adds.

But even a fancy computer program won't always help.

``If someone like People Express cuts their fares, the others have to match it,'' Davis says.

The latest feature in the bargain air fare picture is the penalty. In the year or so since it was introduced, it has surprised and angered a lot of people who had become used to reserving a bargain fare, only to cancel it later when they found something better. At most airlines now, the penalty is at least 25 percent.

If you book a flight from Los Angeles to New York, for instance, and want to change the time or date of the departure or return, you'll have to pay at least 25 percent of the fare for the unused portion of the trip. In addition, if you want to come back from a vacation early, expect to buy a one-way ticket at full price. In some instances, this could triple the cost of your trip.

If it's a big bargain, the penalty could be more. ``If it's a $99 fare, 25 percent isn't much of a penalty,'' Mr. Jorgensen says, so the airline might have a higher penalty.

While these penalties are usually mentioned in the ads, Davis notes, many customers don't realize how restrictive they can be.

Also, if you get a bargain fare through a travel agent or directly from the airline, someone may forget to mention the penalty, so be sure to ask about it.

Frankly, she says, she is somewhat surprised that the penalty is still around. ``When the airlines came out with this a year ago, we didn't think they could make it stick,'' she recalls. ``But they have, so people are going to have to learn to live with it.''

There are times, she continues, where an airline will make allowances for valid emergencies. If, for example, a family member becomes ill halfway through your vacation, forcing you to return early, you may be able to use your bargain fare. The airline will either let you return without an extra charge or ask you to buy a full-fare ticket and reimburse you for the difference later.

``But this could take several weeks or months,'' she warns. ``So be prepared to be patient.'' Just be sure you have adequate proof that the early return was necessary.

In most parts of the country, January and February are the best times to look for bargain fares. This is also true in the Northeast, but here, a regional tradition known as ``February school vacation week'' takes away much of the incentive that airlines might have to offer bargains to warmer climes or ski areas in mid-February.

If you want to find the cheapest fare, the best advice is to be flexible. Once a fare is heavily advertised, the seats often fill up fast, so if you can offer the travel agent some alternative departure and return dates, you will increase your chances of saving money. It will also help if you aren't too choosy about which airline you use, since travel agents tend to look for the best fares and schedules and don't pay too much attention to airlines.

Lately, though, an exception to this is Eastern Airlines. Labor and financial difficulties at Eastern have prompted some agents to steer customers away from it, especially if they are planning to travel after March 1. That date is a double deadline for the carrier, since agreements with pilots' and machinists' unions are due to expire, and some lenders have said they want loan repayments to begin by then.

If there is a strike, other carriers will probably honor Eastern tickets as long as they have seats available. But if Eastern declares bankruptcy, those tickets probably wouldn't be honored.

For now, then, this is an unusual but necessary extra to consider when looking for high-flying bargains.

If you have a question that would make a good subject for this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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