The other day, just before lunch, I found a great airfare: Anchorage to Auckland, New Zealand, for $344 round-trip.
Unfortunately, the fare no longer is available. And that's how it is for some of the best deals: They come and go with little or no advance notice. These deals are not meant for the traveling public. They pop up and disappear for odd reasons. Sometimes, it's a mistake. After all, there are millions of airfares published each day. Other times, there's a battle going on between airlines — and that's how the airlines communicate with each other. These are called "attack fares." Or sometimes an airline is launching a new route and wants to make a splash with an introductory fare. The airlines call these trends "dynamic pricing," which simply means that the fares change all the time, without notice.
The up-down-up-again nature of airfares is something of a game for frequent travelers. I bought my first ticket to Hong Kong because it was so cheap: $533 round-trip from Anchorage on Delta, featuring the airline's nonstop flight from Seattle to Hong Kong.
It's one thing to find a great airfare. It's another thing to book it. For example, the other day's deal from Anchorage to New Zealand featured flights on Alaska Airlines or United Airlines connecting to Air New Zealand. You couldn't book it on Air New Zealand's website at that price. But you could go to a travel site like Orbitz.com and find the rate. Not all fares appear simultaneously on all sites. I tried to find the deal on Priceline.com without success.
It doesn't happen often, but occasionally an airline will have second thoughts about a fare it offered. Apparently, this is the case with those Air New Zealand fares. At Orbitz.com, they characterized the low prices as "an issue" which "caused a number of tickets to be sold at prices significantly lower than their actual value."
Last November, there were some low fares from Anchorage to Europe. Major destinations like Rome, Barcelona, Paris, London and Milan were included. Round-trip fares dipped to $400 from Anchorage or Fairbanks. It was interesting to look at the fare construction: the fare itself was just 50 cents each way. The rest was the fuel surcharge, taxes and fees.
One of my go-to airfare search tools is Google's ITA Matrix site (matrix.itasoftware.com). You can't purchase tickets on that site, so typically I go to the airline's website. But these fares used two or three airlines (Alaska + American/British/Finnair, Delta + Virgin Atlantic or United + Air Canada/Lufthansa), so each airline was pricing the ticket differently. That's when it made sense to check with an online travel agency to tie it all together (such as Orbitz or Priceline). Usually that works.
Sometimes, though, you need a real travel agent to decipher good deals from not-so-good deals. But that discernment comes with a price. I checked with my travel agent, Kelly Jo Rodriguez at Alaska Travel Source (alaskatravelsource.com), and she charges $35 for a domestic ticket and $75 for an international ticket.
Remember: You can buy a ticket at the low rate, then take 24 hours to work out the details. That's because U.S. consumer protection laws mandate that airlines offer a 24-hour cancellation at no additional cost.
There are plenty of tools available for travelers to keep tabs on low fares around the country — or around the world. In fact, I use some of these tools to develop my own alerts. That's because I have to dig through quite a few deals to and from major hubs to find a few that apply for Alaska travelers.
1. The Flight Deal (theflightdeal.com). Every day, these folks come up with 10 or 12 good deals. If you dig down into each listing, you'll see that they also use the ITA Matrix site to find the specific dates that a bargain is available.
2. Kayak.com/EXPLORE. This deep link inside the Kayak search engine displays a low-fare map. You can specify your departure city. Then you can see at a glance some of the best deals to cities around the world. This is where I first saw a $97 one-way fare to Kona from Anchorage! You have to drill down on these deals, though. That's because not all fares are displayed correctly. Then there are others that have really long connecting times. Still, the Kayak map is a good first step to see if any deals have popped up. Then go to the ITA site to see if they apply on your preferred dates.
4. Twitter. Because of the bulletin-board nature of Twitter, I'm able to scroll through many different sources quickly. Then I can go to their site or back to the ITA Matrix site to see if the fare works for me. Favorites include @scottsflights (no relation!), @SecretFlying, @passportclique and @mightytravels.
Again, finding low fares is one thing. Booking them is quite another. The 24-hour free cancellation window is a risk-free tool (I used it when I flew to Hong Kong) to nail down the details before the charge hits your credit card.
It's a particularly advantageous time to travel internationally, because of the low fares and the favorable exchange rate.