July 29, 2009

What Does 'Special Offer' Mean?

Newspapers and the Internet are littered with special offers from airlines. "Dusseldorf - 34.99 must book by midnight 29th April" from Flybe is fairly typical. The fare might look attractive but, assuming you want to go to Dusseldorf, should you rush to book?

There are a few points to note:

• There is no guarantee the fare offered after the cut-off date will not be even lower. You can look at some fare comparison sites and get a view of the lowest-ever fares on the route you are looking at (kayak.co.uk will allow you to look at data for various dates over a long period) to see just how good the fare is. In the US, a couple of big agents have forced airlines to allow passengers the right to cancel and rebook at new rates if prices are reduced after a booking has been made. This could act against travelers' interests since it is bound to influence airlines in their pricing decisions if they feel that a sudden price reduction is going to lead to a large number of refunds. There is no sign of such a move in the UK or Europe.

• The new 'special offer' fare could actually be higher than previous fares offered outside the promotion. Airlines can excuse this on the basis that fares should go up as departure nears.

• The lead-in fare displayed should be inclusive of all charges that have to be paid in advance (airport charges, fuel supplements and any check-in charges). Optional charges such as baggage costs or boarding priority will not be shown.

• The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), in conjunction with ABTA and IATA, has a code of conduct for special travel offers that states, "Quoted fares should be available in sufficient quantities to ensure a reasonable prospect of obtaining a flight at the advertised rate." Most special offers will have some form of restriction and are unlikely to be available on every flight and on every day but this should be stated in the advert (for example, "only available on selected midweek departures").

Quite what a 'reasonable number of seats' means is anyone's guess, but if an airline is advertising an offer widely and it only has a handful of seats for sale at that price it could find itself in difficulty. The ASA has considered a number of complaints on this subject and it appears to adopt a fairly sensible approach. For example, if an airline has a special deal for fares to New York in October, then it is acceptable for it to only have seats for sale on ten days, and only on one flight on those days, but there must then be a substantial number of seats on those flights.

On the other hand, an airline could offer a smaller number of seats on virtually every flight, for most days of the month. An airline that is promoting a special deal and not offering more than 10% of its total seats at that price (even though these seats may not be available on several days) would probably be judged in breach of the rules. Of course, proving this could be very difficult.

• Some airlines have a 'low fare finder' on their websites to help you find the dates for the lowest fares. If you click on a headline fare on Ryanair's home page, the booking period and any black-out dates will be displayed. Assuming the special offer is available from 1st to 30th June on the route from Birmingham to Girona, the flight booking box will automatically have been filled in for a departure on 1st June, returning on 30th June.

Click on this and ensure the 'flexible dates' box is checked. You will then get fares for a week at a time through the booking period, which should allow you to pinpoint the dates when the lowest fares apply. Ticking the 'flexible dates' box at easyJet will give you a display over a week, which you can extend. If you cannot get any sense from an airline's site, you can go to a comparison site (skyscanner.net and kayak.co.uk), which will show you fares for a month at a time.

There are some genuinely good deals available now, some of them as part of an airline's 'special' promotion and some just by using their 'normal' rates. However, the term 'special fare' is virtually meaningless. You need to check any fare against other dates and competitors' fares to get an understanding of whether it is good value.

How to save more

An assiduous search on the Internet for the best possible airfare or hotel deal should not be the end of your efforts to save money. Once you have found the best price, you should check to see whether a further discount is available by using one of the discount referral systems.

Most companies that sell on the Internet offer some form of referral commission to sites that produce them business. The price comparison services live on this commission but there are a number of ways of getting a share of this for yourself.

We like quidco.com. You have to pay a membership fee to join (£5 a year, deducted from your first commission payment) and then you get money back from a range of companies if you purchase through the link from the Quidco site. You are not booking through an agent but direct with the company - by clicking on the Quidco link, the company will pay its standard referral commission to Quidco, which passes it back to you. It lists a large number of companies including many well-known motor insurers, mobile phone companies and mail-order organizations. It has 218 travel companies, which include many travel insurers, car-hire companies, some airlines and a large number of agents and hotel companies. The commissions range from just 1% with a few airlines such as Flybe and KLM but go up to 10% with some car-hire companies (including Avis and Hertz). Hotel agents tend to give some of the best rebates (which might give a clue as to how much they are making on sales!). Hotels.com (our least-favorite agent) offers 8% but the better-value Hotelopia gives a staggering 12%.

The discount is not immediate - you have to wait for it to be paid by the company, which then pays it to you - a three-month wait is quite typical.

You could also try http://www.myvouchercodes.co.uk, but we find this site rather frustrating to use because of its messy design. Too many of the listed offers are unavailable and you can waste a lot of time, but a couple of our readers have reported some success.

A slightly less attractive option is simply to book through the pages of Nectar or Air Miles. You need to log into the site and click on a link to their partners to be awarded points on your purchase. Nectar, in particular, has a wide range of partners and it is worth checking to see whether a company you are going to use is listed. The savings may be quite small but since the process is simple and free you may as well grab what is available.

And how to stretch your hotel bargain even further

As we keep saying, there is a limit to how far hotels will reduce rates, even in the worst conditions. We read a report from some five-star hotels in Bangkok that said they expected occupancy levels to be around 50% for 2009 but, while they will be doing their best to attract extra guests with special deals, they have to consider how much benefit this will have. If people are not traveling, it is unlikely an extra $10 a night off is going to make them buy a ticket to Bangkok. Cutting rates too far can simply erode a hotel's income without producing any extra profit. Many hotels are offering 'value-added' deals, which enable them to encourage new guests by including extras but avoid cutting the actual rates too much. Chain hotels have an added weapon in their armory - the power of their frequent-guest programs. Every chain has periods when they offer various points promotions, such as double points or special bonuses, but some chains now have very attractive offers which can be of value even to less frequent travelers.

Intercontinental Hotels (which includes Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express) has a special promotion that offers guests one free night after they have paid for just two nights. The paid nights need not be consecutive but stays must be made by 1st July. You then have until the end of the year to claim a completely free night at one of the hotels in the group's network. Our feeling is that this will work best for people who stay at one of the cheaper hotels, because they get the same reward as anyone staying at the top-of-the range hotels.

Starwood (Sheraton, Westin and Le Méridien among others) has a similar deal. It gives you one free weekend night after just two stays before 31st July. The free weekend night is available until the end of September.

To take advantage of these offers you have to be a member of the chain's frequent-guest program and register for the promotion, so you should do it before making your first booking. As with all frequent-guest hotel programs, you have to book direct with the chain or hotel to qualify. Pre-paid bookings made through Internet agents do not count.

If you do a search for the best hotel rates in a city and find that a Holiday Inn or Sheraton is on the list, it obviously makes sense to choose that hotel, because you stand to get a valuable free night.

Hotel chains tend to copy each other's promotions - at least, when they are successful - so we would expect some other chains to offer similar deals and, maybe, these two chains will wish to repeat the offer later in the year.

Jack Rosenbloom is a regular contributor to Inside Traveler (http://www.insidetraveller.co.uk)

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Jack_Rosenbloom

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