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A fare gamble

Question: In February, I booked a flight from LAX to Istanbul, with a return from Athens. The flight includes legs on American and its flight partner Iberia Airlines. The cost was $1,122. Friends who booked the same trip later paid $822. I called American and asked for a refund but was told that doing so would incur a $250 change fee, thereby wiping out the savings. But I am not changing anything. The itinerary remains the same in every way. Why can’t I take advantage of the lower fare instead of being penalized for booking early?

Barbara Pronin Placentia

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Answer: Think of a plane ticket as if it were a rib roast in the meat case at the grocery store. You spy it, you like it, you buy it. Later you discover that the beef, for which you just paid $8.99 a pound, is on sale for $2.99 a pound. You may kick yourself, but you generally don’t get a refund.

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Tim Smith, a spokesman for American, says his airline’s ticket policy is less restrictive than the meat metaphor. American will refund the difference, according to its contract of carriage. Here’s what Smith told me in an e-mail: “Essentially, [the contract] says if a fare goes down prior to the beginning of travel, the customer is eligible for a refund of the difference minus the change fee if there is one on that type fare. (The new fare must be the same type fare category with the same conditions and restrictions.)”

Pronin was so annoyed about her treatment that she took her complaint to the vice president for customer relations. For her effort, she said, she received a $200 voucher good for a year on any American flight.

We will ignore the fact that most airlines could save themselves trouble (and badmouthing) if they had someone who could say, “You know what? This seems wrong. Let me see what I can do.” We’ll also ignore the fact that airlines aren’t legally required to give a refund, said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Knowing when to buy is almost impossible, because pricing is based on market conditions and mathematical factors about which we mere mortals know very little. But MMs can turn to a couple of websites.

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Farecast.com predicts the best time to buy a ticket. Let’s say you want to fly from Los Angeles to Honolulu on July 15, returning a week later. The website shows the lowest fare -- $374 on American. A nearby note says now is the time to buy because that fare is rising or steady, and Farecast is 72% confident that this is right. And if your fare goes on sale, Farecast will e-mail you when a price drops.

Another good site is Yapta.com. I’ve been tracking Los Angeles-New York flights because I thought the fare was too high at $379 when I first started looking in February. On May 8, Yapta alerted me that the fare had dropped $60.

And, said Jeff Pecor of Yapta, the site would have tracked the price of Pronin’s flight and alerted her using e-mail (or Twitter) when her savings were greater than the change fee, saving her the hassle.

Websites that look out for you? You gotta love them, almost as much as a juicy rare roast beef.

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Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com.


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