Fares: Watch out for slippery airline websites

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We noticed today that Virgin America is selling discounted tickets for travel between April 26 and June 11, 2008.

Sample fares include:

between Seattle and San Francisco, from $146 roundtrip

between D.C. and San Francisco and between D.C. and L.A, from $238 roundtrip.

Additional routes also on sale. We cross checked the going routes on the above fares, and they were the lowest we saw from any airline.

Find these deals at the Virgin America website. Fares must be booked by this Friday, April 25. Taxes are not included in the prices quoted above.

Budget Travel tip: Like many airlines (and Web travel agencies, such as Expedia), Virgin America is said to keep a list of computer addresses, tracking the number of visits and types of searches that you make on its website. The airline, like others, may slowly ramp up the prices you see while you're on their site—or when you return to the website a day or two later.

It's not clear why airlines and travel agencies do this (or how often they do it). By hiking the prices steadily, they might prompt you to book a ticket more quickly. Or maybe they hike prices because they think you won't not shop around and they can get away with it.

In any event, if you don't book your ticket as soon as you see a deal on Virgin America's website—or on any travel website—watch out. In particular, keep your eyes out to see whether fares are rising as you do searches on the same itinerary over the course of your search, or when you revisit the site within a day or so. If fares are rising while you do your searches, then switch computers (from, say, a home computer to a workplace computer). You'll probably find that because the website doesn't recognize your second computer, it offers you its lowest fares again. (In some cases, of course, fares will just spike because of sudden demand.)

Here's a more advanced technique, for computer-savvy users:

Websites put cookies on your computer that let them know you've been there (which is how they remember your name). Travel sites, however, have used them to avoid showing you the same price every time you visit. Delete your cookies and they'll treat you like a new customer. How you delete them depends on your computer and browser, but the option is usually available under the "Tools" or "Preferences" menu of Explorer, Safari, and Firefox. Some cookies serve a useful purpose, so delete only the ones associated with the booking engine.


Cranky has a report from his flights this weekend.

The airline, which debuted last year and which offers neat perks like in-flight instant messaging, may not be able to expand to Newark airport as previously expected, due to new federal caps on flights in and out of New York City airspace. [via msnbc]


Is Virgin America the best airline for budget travelers?

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