The E-Commerce Chronicles: Last-minute travel bargains

Not all pleasure travelers can meet the airlines' 14- and 30-day advance-purchase rules for cheaper tickets. Yet a lack of flexibility doesn't mean vacationers can spend like they're tapping a corporate expense account. Enter the Internet.

My husband and I knew we wanted to head out of town once his sister gave birth, but we didn't know exactly when the blessed event would take place. I wasn't keen on a seven-hour drive to Philadelphia. But I also didn't want to spend more money on an air ticket to Philly than I would for, say, a weeklong trip to Florida. It was a perfect time to check out all those last-minute deals on the Net.

I headed over to Smarter Living, a site that aggregates Web specials from more than 20 different airlines. We were in luck: American had a Saturday-to-Monday, Boston-to-Philadelphia Internet fare for $99 round trip. Smarter Living sent me off to the American Airlines site, where I found a couple of available flights, conferred with my husband and another sister who was coming, too. We agreed to buy tickets for the three of us and two of my nieces.

That was the good news.

When I went back to the American site several hours later, I couldn't log in. I had the same user name and password as before, but for whatever reason the site wouldn't let me on. After numerous tries, I called technical support and they finally looked up and booked the flights for us -- assuring me that I'd still get my bonus frequent flier miles for booking online. Not exactly the seamless online experience I'd been expecting. But at least it worked.

Airline booking grade: B-

That's more than I can say for actually trying to use the tickets.

When we arrived at Boston's Logan International Airport the day of our flight, we were informed that the plane -- which seated fewer than 40 passengers -- was overbooked by seven. Either this was a deliberate attempt to oversell the plane based on the assumption that 20% or so of the paying customers wouldn't show up, or American's front-end Web sales system wasn't communicating too well with the back-end inventory management.

The experience was compounded by a gate-agent supervisor looking at us sternly and admonishing, "I don't know where you bought these tickets, maybe from a travel agent, but you bought tickets on an oversold flight." Silly me. How could I be so foolish?

Three of the five of us were given seats; two others were left out. Meanwhile, we'd all planned to share a rental car upon arrival in Philly.

The stranded pair of us were finally granted seats about three minutes before departure. But the experience has made me leery of trusting American's ticket-management system to know when to sell off excess inventory on the Net and when to stop. To be fair, though, the return flight Monday morning went off without a hitch.

Airline tickets grade: C-

While I was on Smarter Living, I also buzzed around the site looking for auto deals. We lucked out: Alamo was touting a full-size car for the weekend for a bargain price of $56 for two days, including tax. Booking was flawless; e-mail confirmation arrived promptly; our reservation was indeed recorded and waiting when we arrived.

Rental car grade: A

It paid to know the discount site. When I went straight to Alamo's site, the rate they were quoting directly was substantially higher. But that's not really so much different than travel in the brick-and-mortar world. When flying to Sarajevo this spring, I bought a Swissair ticket from one of the so-called "bucket shops" by phone that was $300 cheaper than what Swissair quoted when I called. It also turned out to be lower than anything I could find on the Net.

Does that mean the phone beats the Net? No, not always. A couple of years ago, I found a ticket to France on Travelocity that was less than half the price quoted by our corporate travel agent. Other times, I've tried to beat the travel agent but come up short.

Remember, we're talking about an industry where the same class of seats on any give flight might have sold for 10 or 20 different fares -- and that was before e-commerce. The only way to find the best deal is to make multiple queries per medium. For each and every trip.

Sharon Machlis formerly covered e-commerce and the travel industry for Computerworld. She is now managing editor, online, for Computerworld.com.

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