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Snagging a Fantasy Fare

Sunday, June 24, 2001

Truth to tell, finding a $100 round-trip fare to Los Angeles is more a case of luck than skill. The airlines sometimes goof, or they sometimes post ultra-low fares to test a particular market. If you happen to be scrolling through an Internet booking service at the right time, you can book those fares.

And they do happen:

• On June 9, Orbitz posted an Alaskan cruise for $125, a mere fraction of the true $1,814 price tag for a deluxe cabin. (The $125 was just for port charges.) Only three people inquired about that rate, which the company honored. A Wisconsin couple will set sail in September for the seven-day cruise.

• Due to a computer glitch, United Airlines in late January posted a $24.98 round-trip flight from San Francisco to Paris on its Web site, as well as zero-fare round-trip tickets (taxes only) to Paris, Singapore and Milan. United originally tried to disclaim the tickets, but after a public outcry, decided to honor them.

• During last Monday's weekly online travel chat on www.washingtonpost.com, a reader from Falls Church told us how she'd "snagged an unbelievable fare for September travel to Albuquerque, N.M. -- $112 round trip through Travelocity on American Airlines," and another reader from Arlington shared the story about a co-worker who "found a fare online for $47 on American Airlines to Scotland (for late August travel) -- with taxes it was $150." The booking site initially refused to process the ticket, but when the woman wrote a letter of complaint to its customer service department, they "promptly changed their tune and honored the price." Moral: Stick to your guns when you successfully book a fare mistake.

Web booking sites generally don't highlight these mistakes, so they're discovered more by chance than design. But several sites specialize in ferreting out short-term bargains, including Internet Air Fares (www.air-fares.com), which includes several paragraphs discussing how to take advantage of airline goofs and short-term fare cuts, and Best Fares (www.bestfares.com), which features a "snooze you lose" section.

"With hundreds of thousands of new fares coming into the airline systems each day, mistakes are bound to happen," according to Internet Air Fares. "Sometimes it is as simple as dropping the last digit off a fare, as when American posted a first class round-trip fare between . . . Orange County and Cincinnati for $200 instead of $2,000."

There is one absolute rule when it comes to booking, however: Do not hesitate for a minute, because these deals disappear quickly. Less than 24 hours after the Travel section staff purchased its $127 D.C.-to-L.A.-and-back tickets on Continental's Web site, the price was back up to $427.

-- Carol Sottili

and Andrea Sachs

© 2001 The Washington Post Company