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Lower Air Fares Through E-Mail

December 9, 2001

BUYING an airline ticket on short notice used to mean paying top dollar. Although in many cases it still does, those who subscribe to weekly e-mail newsletters that most airlines now offer can find out about low fares for last-minute travel.

There are lots of restrictions, the most important being that fares are generally announced on Wednesday for departures the following Saturday, with returns limited to the following Monday or Tuesday. And most deals are for direct routes from an airline's hub, not for flights to smaller airports that involve changing planes.

But at a time when many travelers are reluctant to plan ahead, the e-mail specials offer an inexpensive way to plan a weekend getaway, and sometimes include discounts from the airline's hotel and car rental partners.

The e-mail promotions are not exactly new — American Airlines introduced its Net SAAver Fares in 1996. But as e-mail has skyrocketed, they have proliferated. The services are also getting more sophisticated as they add features that enable subscribers to customize the promotions they receive — for example, by designating a preferred departure airport.

Adam Gwosdof, a software developer in New York and a frequent flier, said he receives weekly e-mail promotions from at least 10 airlines. He estimates that in the past two years, he has bought five tickets at special prices advertised in the messages, most recently paying $89 for a round-trip ticket from La Guardia to Boston.

"It's usually never more than $300 to go anywhere domestically," Mr. Gwosdof said.

Sample fares that have been offered in recent weeks include Chicago to Boston for $119 round trip on American Airlines (; San Francisco to Los Angeles for $88 on United (; Detroit to Denver for $199 on Northwest (; and Newark to Boston for $78 on Delta (

With respect to restrictions on days of departure and return, there are some differences depending on the airline. US Airways, for example, allows passengers to depart Sunday as well as Saturday and return Sunday as well as Monday or Tuesday, and for some flights, American allows travelers to depart on Friday after 7 p.m. as well as on Saturday.

International Fares

Special fares to international destinations, which some airlines send in a separate e-mail, are generally for midweek departures a week to 10 days later, returning within a few days. (There are more differences among airlines in the rules for international travel.) Recent deals include a round-trip fare from New York (La Guardia) to Frankfurt for $245 on US Airways; New York (Kennedy) to Venice for $260 on Delta, and San Francisco to Hong Kong for $458 on United.

But the inexpensive deals offered by e-mail sometimes come at the cost of other airline services and perks. For example, Mr. Gwosdof said, if you're an elite member of an airline's frequent flier program, you're often not allowed to upgrade on these fares. And at least one airline, Northwest, does not award frequent flier miles for its weekly CyberSaver Fares (though many other airlines do grant frequent flier miles for Internet and e-mail specials). Also, some airlines require passengers to book e-mail fares online or charge extra for reservations made by telephone.

Signing up to receive these e-mail newsletters can also present challenges. Most airlines require e-mail subscribers to be members of the airline's frequent flier program, and in many cases subscribers also need to set up a password or a personal identification number (P.I.N.) to register for the e-mail service. This can involve a certain amount of frustration.

For example, United Airlines does not list its e-mail service on the airline's otherwise well-organized home page. (To register for the United e-mail, click on the "update profile" link under the "planning travel" tab on United's home page; you'll have to enter your frequent flier number and a password in order to sign up for the e-mail newsletters.)

I also ran into problems at Delta's site, since the sign-up process required me to enter my ZIP code and it turned out the address Delta had on file for me was 10 years old. Over the phone, a customer service representative updated my address information and helped me set up a P.I.N. And while I was home for Thanksgiving, I tried to register my mother's e-mail address to receive Northwest's CyberSaver Fares newsletter, but kept getting an unexplained error on the registration page. A few days later, I was able to sign her up with no problem.

Sorting Through the Options

Travelers who register for these e-mail services also need to be willing to sift through a lot of extraneous information to find a fare for a destination that appeals to them. Mark Levy, a psychiatrist who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., said he receives weekly e-mails from Continental and United, but has never bought a ticket based on an offer listed.

"These have never worked out for me," Dr. Levy said. "You have to leave within a short time and return within a short time, so it's only good for last-minute travel." Another problem is that he has sometimes clicked on links within the United e-mails to check flight availability for special fares listed in the message, only to encounter a message on United's Web site saying that at the time, there were not any e-fares available.

Chris Nardella, a spokeswoman for United, said one possible explanation is that if customers click on the e-fares link on Saturday, Sunday or Monday, they would encounter that message because the special fares must be purchased by Friday for a Saturday departure. But in Dr. Levy's case, according to a United representative, the error message may be due to a three-hour delay between the time United sends out its weekly e-mail and the time the discounted fares appear on United's Web site; the airline said it is working to close that gap.

For those who want to avoid the hassle of registering for multiple services, or prefer to minimize the number of weekly e-mails they receive, at least one site, Smarter Living (, offers a service that aggregates all of the airlines' weekly specials and sends them in a single message.

Travelers who register with Smarter Living select from among 60 cities (generally choosing a nearby departure airport); each Wednesday, the service sends an e-mail that lists all of the last-minute specials available from that city, and which airline is offering that fare.

The Smarter Living e-mails are easier to scan than opening and reading several messages from multiple airlines, but one drawback is that they do not necessarily include all of the information and special promotions the airlines now send directly to their e-mail subscribers. For this reason, Mr. Gwosdof said, "If you have a strong frequent flier preference, register with your preferred airline and its partners."

by SUSAN STELLIN. Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company


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