How to Get Money Back When Airfares Drop

The Wall Street Journal

Have you ever bought an airline ticket only to see the price fall and your anger rise? Now there is something you can do about it.

Few customers realize it, but many airlines will give refunds if they cut the price after you have bought a ticket. Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, United and US Airways all offer vouchers for the full price difference -- if the price drops $200, you can get a $200 coupon towards a future trip. Others offer vouchers, or cash, after deducting change fees (which can run up to $100). In industry jargon, it is called a "rollover," and in most cases it only works if you bought the ticket directly from the airline. (It generally won't work if you bought them via a Web site such as Expedia.com or Orbitz.com, unless the price drops in the first 24 hours.)

     
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The rollover policies have been in place for decades, but, until recently, it has been tough for consumers to figure out when their flight's price has changed. The catch is you have to call while the lower price is in effect to get your rollover. That is where a new Web site, Yapta.com, has come up with a clever way to take some of the anxiety out of buying airline tickets.

New Way to Track Fares

Yapta, a company run by a former Alaska Airgroup Inc. pricing vice president, was launched May 22. It tracks fares on specific flights you select before or after you buy a ticket. That is an improvement over Web sites that just track markets, but don't allow you to specify which flights you really want. You can use Yapta before you buy to alert you by email to pricing changes on a particular trip, or let you know if the price drops after you've bought a ticket and you're eligible for a refund. In order to obtain the voucher, you need to phone the airline directly. (You usually can't snare one online.)

Ellen Siminoff, who signed up with Yapta to test the site before its launch, paid $800 each for four tickets from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. A few days later, she got notification from Yapta that the price had dropped to about $400 per ticket. She called UAL Corp.'s United and got tickets reissued at the lower price plus four $400 vouchers. "There's no way I would have been checking sites to see if the price went down," she said.

Fares yo-yo based on ticket sales and airline expectations of demand, and the uncertainty and disparity frustrates fliers. Prices sometimes change several times during the day.

Several Web sites are trying to blunt some of that unpredictability. Farecast.com tries to predict whether prices will rise or fall in a market -- it gives you a "buy" or "wait" recommendation. Another site, Farecompare.com, offers historical information that can be useful in trying to decide if a fare may drop in the future. If you are hoping for a round-trip between Washington, D.C., and Houston for $150, Farecompare can tell you that in the past 12 months, Continental Airlines Inc. only offered that briefly in August last year.

Alerts

Several Web sites offer alerts on price changes for specific markets. Expedia Inc.'s "Fare Alert" is a tool you can download and it sits in the toolbar of your PC and pops up when a lower fare comes along on a route you're interested in. Travelocity, a unit of Sabre Holdings Corp., has a "Fare Watcher" that lets you pick city pairs and get alerts when the price changes by $25 or more. Orbitz Worldwide Inc.'s "Deal Detector" let's you select only nonstop flights or preferred airlines.

Yapta raises the bar by allowing you to pinpoint prices on specific flights. Alerts from other sites may be triggered by 6 a.m. departures or redeye trips, for example, that may not be acceptable to you.

To use Yapta, you have to download it on your PC and then it will automatically integrate itself into your flight searches. So far, the tagger works with Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and most U.S. airline Web sites, but not with sites that search multiple vendors like Kayak.com.

When you search, Yapta places a button on the screen for you to click if you want to "tag" one of the flights offered. Tagging doesn't take you away from the Web site you're on -- it just sends the information to Yapta.

Once you tag a flight, Yapta will email you when the price changes. If you buy the ticket and record the information with Yapta, it will alert you to refund possibilities, taking into account the policies of that airline.

With 275 people using Yapta as beta testers, the average voucher was about $85. United and Alaska had the most generous refund policies, offering a choice of free vouchers or cash back after change fees, says Yapta Chief Executive Tom Romary. American and Continental are generally the stingiest -- any price drop has to be greater than the $100 change fee the airline deducts before a voucher will be issued.

Price Guarantees

Most airlines and travel vendors have more-liberal 24-hour or same-day price guarantees, offering to rebook you at a lower price and refund the difference if the price drops in the first 24 hours, without change fees. Expedia and Travelocity go a step further offering their own 24-hour guarantee. If prices drop more than $5 within 24 hours, they will reissue tickets at the lower price, refund the difference and give you their own $50 voucher toward future purchases. Of course, many tickets never go down in price, so Yapta's primary use is as a bit of price protection for travelers. "If the price goes down, there's something to cover me," said Mr. Romary.

Several airlines said they are pondering whether they think Yapta is a good thing for them or not. If it spurs sales at higher price levels and vouchers build customer loyalty, carriers will support it. On the other hand, a flood of refund requests could force changes in rollover policies.

I have used Yapta, which stands for Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant, for the past couple of weeks and found it helpful at tracking flights. For my own test, I tagged a bunch of flights from various Web sites. A Denver-to-Boston round trip in June that United offered me at $742 dropped to $463 one afternoon, a 38% tumble. A Dallas-Washington round trip for June that I had followed for some time for a family trip typically priced around $350. But early one morning, Yapta fired notice that the American flights I wanted fell to $229.

But as they say, you must act quickly. Prices can bounce back up before you are done with breakfast.

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