Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Website can help get airflight price reductions

Few fliers realize it, but many airlines will give refunds if they cut the price after you buy a ticket. Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, United and US Airways offer vouchers for the full price. Others offer vouchers, or cash, after deducting change fees (which can run up to $100).

In industry jargon, it is called a "rollover," and in most cases it only works if you bought the ticket directly from the airline. The rollover policies have been in place for decades, but, until recently, it has been tough for consumers to figure out when their flight's price has changed. The catch is you have to call while the lower price is in effect to get your rollover. That is where a new Web site,, has come up with a clever way to take some of the anxiety out of buying airline tickets.

Yapta (which stands for Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant) tracks fares on specific flights you select before or after you buy a ticket. You can use Yapta before you buy to alert you by email to pricing changes on a particular trip, or let you know if the price drops after you've bought a ticket and you're eligible for a refund. In order to obtain the voucher, you need to phone the airline directly.

Ellen Siminoff, who signed up with Yapta to test the site before its launch, paid $800 each for four tickets from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. A few days later, she got notification from Yapta that the price had dropped to about $400 per ticket. She called United and got tickets reissued at the lower price plus four $400 vouchers. "There's no way I would have been checking sites to see if the price went down," she said.

Fares yo-yo based on ticket sales and airline expectations of demand, and the uncertainty and disparity frustrates fliers. Prices sometimes change several times during the day.

Several Web sites offer alerts on price changes for specific markets. Expedia Inc.'s "Fare Alert" is a tool you can download and it sits in the toolbar of your PC and pops up when a lower fare comes along on a route you're interested in. Travelocity has a "Fare Watcher" that lets you pick city pairs and get alerts when the price changes by $25 or more. Orbitz's "Deal Detector" let's you select only nonstop flights or preferred airlines.

Yapta raises the bar by allowing you to pinpoint prices on specific flights. Alerts from other sites may be triggered by 6 a.m. departures or redeye trips, for example, that you don’t want.

When you search, Yapta places a button on the screen for you to click if you want to "tag" one of the flights offered. Tagging doesn't take you away from the website you're on -- it just sends the information to Yapta.

Once you tag a flight, Yapta will email you when the price changes. If you buy the ticket and record the information with Yapta, it will alert you to refund possibilities, taking into account the policies of that airline. You must act quickly. Prices can bounce back up within minutes.

Most airlines and travel vendors have more-liberal 24-hour or same-day price guarantees, offering to rebook you at a lower price and refund the difference if the price drops in the first 24 hours, without change fees. Expedia and Travelocity go a step further offering their own 24-hour guarantee. If prices drop more than $5 within 24 hours, they will reissue tickets at the lower price, refund the difference and give you their own $50 voucher toward future purchases.

Several airlines said they are pondering whether they think Yapta is a good thing for them or not. If it spurs sales at higher price levels and vouchers build customer loyalty, carriers will support it. On the other hand, a flood of refund requests could force changes in rollover policies. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

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