Late last year I bought a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Paris on Air France for $558, plus tax. A couple of weeks later, a newspaper ad showed that the ticket had been discounted to $448.
I called Air France and complained. "There is nothing we can do," I was told. C'est la vie?
No way. I asked for the customer service department's address, wrote a letter and went on my trip.
Three months went by. Then I received a form letter from Air France asking for my boarding passes and the newspaper ad so it could review my request. Luckily, I had them and sent them in.
The question that faced me and that faces millions of other passengers: Can I take advantage of a deal if I've already bought my tickets?
The answer, as is often the case with airlines: Not exactly, but it depends--on an airline's policy and on a consumer's initiative.
Airlines are not legally obligated to offer refunds to passengers who paid pre-sale prices, particularly if the travelers bought nonrefundable and non-exchangeable tickets, which are most of the tickets sold in the U.S.
"There are no rules on what level of price an airline can set," says Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most major carriers offer travel vouchers for future use to passengers who seek the difference between what they paid and the sale price of the ticket, but many vouchers come with restrictions.
"Certain things have to line up," says Joe Hopkins, a spokesman for United Airlines. "It has to be the same itinerary, the same flights, the same class of service. And there has to be a seat available."
Continental, Delta and American have similar policies, and all also offer a refund of sorts. Passengers can get money back--after a reticketing fee of $100.
Vouchers, if available, may make more financial sense because reticketing fees usually are not involved. For passengers who overpaid $100 or less, the reticketing fee negates any savings. Vouchers enable a consumer to make up the lost savings entirely--albeit by taking another trip.
"A lot more people choose the travel voucher," a ticketing agent at American told me.
The reservations desk handles such requests for many domestic airlines. It could be worth asking before you buy a ticket what the airline's policy is so that if prices go down, you may be able to seek a voucher for the difference.
US Airways doesn't offer vouchers in such cases. It does consider requests for rebates, but it also charges a $100 reissue fee. Whether it's worth it is "the question a customer has to ask," says David Castelveter of the carrier's public relations office.
Consumer advocates say your best bet is to take preventive measures: Shop around long before buying instead of trying to get a deal after you have tickets in hand. Otherwise, "you're stuck; you don't get a rebate," says Scott W. Reed, spokesman for the National Airline Passengers Coalition, a Washington-based group that lobbies for airline travelers.
"Our advice is to compare. Never accept the first fare you're quoted on," he adds. "Plan ahead, be flexible."
He also suggests considering some of the newer, smaller airlines that offer more competitive prices.
Another way you might avoid the guessing game of when to buy: Let a travel agent know your plans as early as possible.
"Agents know when deals are coming up," says Ed Perkins, consumer advocate for the American Society of Travel Agents, based in Alexandria, Va. "Tell them: 'I want to go to New York on this date. Let me know when there's a sale."'
Perkins adds another bit of money-saving advice: Don't focus only on air fares. Check out hotel deals. Lodging expenses can add up quickly, and shopping around could save you hundreds of dollars that no airline sale could offer.
There also are last-minute fare deals, but if you must go on a particular trip at a particular time, waiting could cost you in other ways. You could lose the advance-purchase advantage.
"For domestic flights, I'd say [buy your ticket] two weeks out. For international flights, at least three," says Kristina Rundquist, spokeswoman for ASTA. "But in high season, get it earlier. Price might not even be the point. You might not be getting on."
And as much as you shop around, there are no guarantees. Fares could drop at any moment, leaving the savviest consumer holding the bag. If an airline doesn't offer travel vouchers in such cases and you've already taken your trip, chances are you're out of luck. But you never know in the airline business.
Nearly two months after I sent in my Air France boarding passes and the newspaper ad, another form letter arrived. It was more like an invoice, indicating that Air France would credit $60 to my charge card in three to four weeks. The remaining $50 of my refund was applied to an "administrative fee."
"That is a processing fee," a refund department representative in Florida said. "The money goes to headquarters in France. If the difference had been less than $50, then we would have just told you there was no refund."
So I got something back, but I didn't save as much as if I had waited to buy my ticket. I would have preferred a travel voucher for the full amount, but that wasn't an option.
But it was better than nothing. Years earlier, I found myself in a similar situation with US Airways. I paid nearly $100 more than a later sale price for a coast-to-coast trip, but I had no recourse. The airline didn't offer vouchers, and the $100 fee for reticketing canceled out any savings.
Sometimes it's just a matter of luck, says ASTA's Perkins.
"That's just the way it works," he says. "That's life."
Times Travel Writer Christopher Reynolds is on assignment. Betty Baboujon is an editor on The Times staff. Address your comments to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.