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Travel

Are you asking for trouble if you buy a fare based on price? Here’s how to decide

Illustration by Loris Lora for Catharine Hamm’s April 7 “On The Spot” column about hunting for barga
Bargain airfares can be tricky. Make sure you take precautions to protect your budget.
(Loris Lora / For The Times)

Wow Air’s demise may have sent ripples through the airline industry, but for leisure travelers, it was more like a chill.

The low-cost Icelandic carrier that tempted us with $99 fares to Iceland ceased operations March 28, stranding thousands of customers who thought they were getting a great deal but ended up getting, if not the shaft, a lot of inconvenience arising from their quest to save money.

As we approach the summer vacation season, Wow’s belly-flop raises this question: Can you minimize your exposure to financial risk and still find an affordable fare without making a deal with the devil? Mostly yes. Here are ways to protect yourself that may require a change in perspective.

Keep abreast of airline business news

  • You don’t have to read quarterly earnings reports, but keep your eyes and ears open for references, rumblings and signals that something is amiss.

Here was an important clue: Wow Air was cutting routes abruptly, said Seth Kaplan, airline analyst and founder of Airline Weekly. It dropped LAX in January in what it called a restructuring.

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The key word is “abruptly.” Airlines change routes, Kaplan said, but when they do it quickly, it should raise a flag.

Another cause for alarm if you read the tea leaves a little more deeply: a business model that mystifies, even if you’re not an analyst.

Wow Air served Iceland winter and summer with a fleet of new planes, Kaplan said. The eyebrow-raisers there: “winter,” which isn’t high season, and “new planes,” which must be paid for.

Bottom line: “If you’re selling something that costs you more than you’re making to produce it, you’re probably not going to be in business very long,” Kaplan said. “Ninety-nine dollar flights from the U.S. to Europe sounded great, but it couldn’t last long.”

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Look at your time frame for buying your ticket and look at the credit card you’re using

Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days to dispute a charge, said Bill Hardekopf, chief executive of LowCards.com, a free credit-card comparison site.

If you bought your Wow ticket less than two months before Wow died, your first move, Hardekopf said, is to call your credit-card company.

If you bought your ticket in October for, say, a Feb. 28 flight, your first move is to call your credit-card company because you don’t have the slam-dunk legal protection, he added. But you need to ask — nicely. “This is such an unusual situation that there could be exceptions” to the 60-day rule, he said.

It’s also important to find out whether your card has travel insurance that covers a company’s financial insolvency, he said. If it does, you probably will be covered.

You also could be covered if you bought a travel insurance policy that covers insolvency. Call the policy issuer to see whether you are covered.

Understand the bargain airfare risk

  • When you fly an ultra-low-cost carrier, the Allegiants, Spirits and Frontiers of the world, or have chosen a basic economy fare, you are in for a ride that could be bumpy if you don’t understand the terms and conditions.

You may pay extra for things such as a carry-on bag or seat selection you get as a matter of course with a regular coach fare on a legacy carrier. You may have to board the plane last if you have a basic economy fare, which is its own walk of shame.
Before you book consider whether the basic fare is worth it and whether the math makes sense.

Kaplan perused airfares on a legacy carrier for a trip from the Washington, D.C., area to south Florida for him, his wife and his child; the total was about $1,500. Then he looked at an ultra-low-cost carrier; the tab was $1,000 less for the three of them.

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Yes, they would have to pay to check a bag, but they decided the cost of one checked bag (in which they put all their stuff, being mindful of the weight limit) still made the low-cost carrier a better deal. And because he’s an airline analyst, he knows a thing or two about terms and conditions — and was willing to live with them.

In the end, price was more important than product.

Reconsider whether price should be the primary driver of your ticket purchase

Leisure travelers are notoriously price-sensitive, but here’s a great truth: You get treated better if you’re an elite flier on a certain airline because loyal customers tend to speak well of their experience, said Janelle Estes, chief insight officer of Usertesting, a San Francisco-based company that allows organizations to see themselves through their customers’ eyes.

Those are the customers airlines want — and customers airlines want to keep — so a carrier may go out of its way to ensure that the experience is positive.

If you tend to buy based on price alone, you’re not going to be anyone’s favorite child.

In her work, Estes helps airlines understand the importance of building empathy for customers to make their experience more enjoyable. When she told me that, I wondered why we don’t build empathy for ourselves.

I know that every dollar spent on a higher fare steals, in days or experiences, from our hard-earned vacation. But if you bracket your trip by punishing yourself in the cheap seats just to save a few dollars, don’t you undermine the premise of your trip?

No one wants to overpay, but in this day and age, the pressure of price can wind up being a punishment. A trip is designed to be a time when you take it easy; maybe you should also take it a little easier on yourself.

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