Watch for strings on one-day sales

If you thought one-day airfare sales were reserved for airlines trying to unload unused seats during the soft demand of late summer or dead of winter, you’d better think again.

One-day sales are becoming as common as blue light specials at Kmart, and almost every carrier is holding them because people stopped flying this fall. But is it worth dropping everything you’re doing to take advantage of a 24-hour sale? Are the prices so much better? How about the availability?

Take Delta’s recent one-day fare special. Prices between the airline’s Atlanta hub and more than 30 destinations-including Houston, Miami, and New York-were slashed to $36 ($31 if you booked online).

But look closer. Those are one-way fares and they come with a myriad of restrictions. Among them:

* Want to travel around Christmas or New Years Day? Forget about it. December 21, 22, 23, 28, and 29 are blacked out. So are January 2, 3, and 6, 2002.

* Gotta be somewhere on a Friday or Sunday? Sorry: travel is valid Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday only.

* Thinking of using the fare sale for a spring break getaway? Unless your spring break is in January, you’re out of luck. Travel must be completed by February 13, 2002. And if you’re considering using the fare sale to make an impromptu visit to the Olympics, I hate to disappoint you, but Salt Lake City isn’t on the list of destinations.

Now granted, the airline industry is awash in fine print, and even when you book a regular ticket you’ve got an almost incomprehensible amount of legalese to contend with. But even if you can see your way through the restrictions on a one-day sale, you’re still only halfway there.

Robert Jones, a Delta frequent flier who decided to take the airline up on its recent offer, tried to book one of the bargain tickets on the Web. “I could never get through,” he says. “I finally had to pay $36 and purchase on the phone.” (A Delta spokeswoman says the extra charge is intended to encourage passengers to book through the website. Using the Internet for reservations saves the carrier money.)

Jones thinks fare sales like Delta’s are a “bait-and-switch,” if for no other reason than that the price you see advertised is rarely what you pay.

Airlines aren’t giving you the full picture when their banner ads lure you to their site for a one-day sale; they’re just offering the most attractive elements of the price reductions. No one expects big disclaimers like, “Warning: you’ll have to wait for hours on the phone” or, “Don’t even think of booking this ticket online, because our servers can’t handle all the traffic.” So, be an alert consumer, just as you would with any special offer.

However, it might be refreshing to see the carriers be more upfront about pricing. Quoting one-way fares is completely disingenuous because the price is almost always based on a round-trip ticket. If you actually tried to book a one-way itinerary, the price would soar because of the airline’s odd pricing systems (that’s a topic for another column).

So what should you do next time there’s a one-day fare sale? Here are a few issues to consider:

* Keep in mind that the shortened timeframe to make a purchase may create congestion on the airline’s website. Do you have the time to wait for your reservation to go through online? Is it worth paying a few dollars more to book by phone?

* What does this mean to your schedule? Are you planning a trip in order to take advantage of the low prices? What about additional expenses, such as car rental, hotel, and meals? Add it all up and ask yourself: Am I really saving money or just using this as an excuse to spend more money?

* Are the limits too confining? If you can work around the blackout dates and avoid flying on the days of the week that the airline won’t let you travel on, then that’s one thing. But if you have to fly to a city that’s not on the list and must be there the day after Thanksgiving, then a one-day fare sale might not be for you.

Remember: just because the airline wants to get rid of its unused seats doesn’t mean that you have to buy them.

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