How to book a cheap flight in the U.S.A. Part 1
Jun 3, 2007 by Michael Redbourn
Domestic vs. International Airfares
A great deal of the confusion about airfares comes from the fact that many people do not realize that there are completely different systems of airfares for domestic flights within any given country and for international flights.
The U.S.A. is the world's largest air travel market and people from the U.S.A. travel within the U.S.A. far more than they travel abroad. Consequently, many people from the U.S.A. including many U.S.A. travel writers are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the air travel industry and make the mistake of applying their knowledge of domestic U.S.A. airfares to international airfares where they generally don't apply at all.
Domestic and international airfares and the optimum consumer strategies for dealing with them have nothing in common. Any advice about airfares from any source, regardless of how authoritative it might seem is probably useless at best and misleading at worst unless it pertains directly to either domestic or international travel
Airfares Within North America
It's natural to assume that by going directly to the airline and thereby cutting out the person in the middle that you'll pay less than if you went through a travel agent or an independent web site. However airlines are under no obligation to offer you the lowest price and their aim whether on the phone or on the Internet is to convince you to pay as much as possible.
Asking an airline how much they want you to pay for a ticket is like asking the I.R.S. how much tax they want you to pay. Of course they'll give you an answer but there'd be no reason to expect it to be the one that's in your best interest.
Very often you'll be better off buying your ticket with the assistance of a travel agent who is not beholden to any particular airline(s), even if you have to pay a little for their services.
Since most often the worst place to buy your ticket if you care about price is directly from an airline you should be sure to look very closely before you your buy tickets from a web based ticket sales robot to see whether or not it is owned by an airline
The best deals on airline tickets for travel within North America are the special "Visit U.S.A." and "Visit North America" fares for foreign visitors that are sold only outside North America. Therefore foreign visitors should buy their tickets for travel within the U.S.A. in their home countries and should not expect to be able to get cheaper prices once they get to the U.S.A.
Tickets within North America are customarily at least as expensive at the last moment as if you plan ahead and are usually much more expensive and the last-minute discounts are for the most part simply a myth.
Don't be misled by claims like "we guarantee the lowest fare" because all that means is that the lowest applicable published fare. What you want is an agency that charges less than the published fare. Unless an agency specifically advertises "consolidator" prices or "prices lower than the airlines", you can fairly safely assume that their offerings are limited to published (list) prices.
Unlike domestic fares in the U.S.A. international airfares remain regulated and the official fares published by the airlines give little indication of the actual prices at which agents sell tickets on those airlines.
The differences between domestic and international airfares are largely due to the differences in how they are, or are not, regulated.
Unlike deregulated domestic U.S.A. airfares, international airfares are regulated both by international treaties and by an international airline price-fixing cartel, the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). It might be worth noting that every U.S.A. based airline operating scheduled international passenger flights voluntarily joined IATA!
Why do airlines join IATA? As with any cartel, it exists to keep prices and airlines' profits artificially high.
Airlines like the cartel because it raises the prices paid by people that don't really care too much about prices, like business travelers. That however is not the whole story and the rest of it is that if airlines sold tickets only at IATA fares they would have too many empty seats that might be saleable at less than the official prices.
All sales of international tickets on scheduled airlines at less than official fares are made through travel agencies of one kind or anther and not directly by the airlines. What happens here in essence is that the travel agent reduces the price to the traveler by taking it out of his own commission. This is how travel agencies are able, quite legally, to offer lower prices for international tickets than the airlines themselves.
The airlines know what is happening of course but they have to pretend they don't so as to appear to have clean hands with IATA.
The airlines are obliged to maintain the make believe that all of their tickets are sold at official rates and cannot admit that they are aware of discounting. It's strange but true that due to the nature of the system of discounting that airlines do not usually know themselves and couldn't admit to knowing if they did, by which agents or at what prices their tickets are most cheaply sold.
How to book a cheap flight in the U.S.A.