Monday, April 18, 2016

BEWARE: Booking multi-city airline tickets could be a costly mistake

In the midst of planning a trip that will include booking a multi-city flight itinerary, I learned of a new twist being employed by major U.S. airlines to wring more dollars out of the traveling public.

The twist is a change in the pricing practices that surround booking multi-city flight itineraries.

Multi-city flights contain several one-way legs under the same reservation and are popular when visiting three or more destinations. If a traveler is going from Seattle (SEA) to Tucson, Arizona (TUS), then to Sacramento (SMF) and then back to Seattle, it is often less expensive to book a multi-city itinerary than to purchase three separate one-way tickets.

But not always.

Prior to the change, passengers could buy non-refundable tickets for each leg. Non-refundable are generally the lowest priced tickets offered.

According to a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, Anti-Trust Division by Kevin Mitchell, founder of The Business Travel Coalition, the big three U.S. carriers of American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL), United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), "[M]ay have recently coordinated on a complicated and comprehensive scheme to change airfare rules that have the effect of driving up the price of an airline ticket on unsuspecting consumers by as much as a factor of seven."

The new pricing scheme, "[C]ombines the highest fares available on each segment and returns a round-trip single price that is substantially higher than if a consumer purchased separate one-way fares," according to Mitchell. Under the new rules, travelers who book a multi-city ticket are shown the fares for fully refundable tickets; non-refundable tickets can no longer be combined on a single itinerary.

"While a knowledgeable travel agent will be cognizant of the policy change, the threshold problem is that most consumers, especially the majority who are infrequent travelers, will not be aware and will pay dearly when booking online at an airline website," Mitchell said.

What does that mean in terms of dollars and cents?

American 737 departs SEA
To find out, I went to AA.com and put in a sample itinerary of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Chicago’s O’Hare International (ORD) on May 15, ORD to Dallas-Ft. Worth International (DFW) on May 18, and a return to SEA on May 21. I also selected “economy with restrictions” for my fare choice. The lowest total fare returned for the three-leg itinerary: $910.70, or an average of $303.57 per leg.

Then I searched the flight segments as individual, one-way flights. The difference was shocking.

The lowest fare available for a non-stop SEA-ORD leg under the separate one-way-ticket scenario: $119. The ORD-DFW leg had a non-stop available for an amazingly low $36 (though it was a 5 a.m. departure), and the DFW-SEA leg could be had for as low as $161, for a total of $316, about one-third the cost of booking a multi-city itinerary.

United.com returned a different result for a sample itinerary of SEA to Newark’s Liberty Airport (EWR) on May 15, EWR to Denver (DEN) on May 18, then returning to SEA on May 21. Booking a multi-city itinerary and specifying “lowest available fare” returned non-stop legs priced as low as $209, $189 and $199, respectively. Booking those as separate one-way tickets on the same dates with the same fare restrictions returned prices of $211, $542 and $204, respectively, or slightly less than double the multi-city fare.

By comparison, the multi-city flight I am planning to take in the near future on Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA) actually comes out $80 less than booking a combination of one-way tickets. As an added bonus, my multi-city booking also allows me to spend a night or two on Honolulu before returning home to Seattle.

The approach of booking several separate one-way tickets instead of a multi-city ticket does have a potential down-side. Should a traveler need to change their itinerary, they could incur three or more change fees – one for each ticket – instead of a single change fee for altering a multi-city itinerary.

The bottom line

As with so many things in today’s extremely complicated air travel environment, it literally pays to do one’s homework. Checking the prices for two airlines for this article took me less than a half-hour. If I was actually planning the sample trip on American, than half-hour’s work would have saved me about $600; an excellent return on the time invested.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
Click on photos to view larger images

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