Taking flight: find the bargains

It’s 6 a.m. and I creep downstairs to get the newspaper that just landed on the doormat. I turn the pages eagerly – and there it is, what I’ve been waiting for – the airline seat sale.
By 7 a.m. I’m on the phone or, if I am in techno-wizard mode, I’ll be on the Internet, booking tickets. By the time I take my morning tea, it’s in the bag. I’ve booked a trip. Or maybe two.

As a foreign correspondent, I would simply call the travel agent and I’d be on the next flight – whatever the cost. Today, it’s our own money, so I play what I call the Great Airline Booking Game.

To win, you need infinite patience, a nose for a deal, and the ruthlessness to pounce like a tiger. It’s a notorious fact that on any flight the person sitting next to you probably paid a different fare – in fact, if we were able to conduct a survey you’d find as many fares as passengers.

Seat sale strategies
There are many ways to ensure you’re one of the lucky ones paying a lower fare, especially given the breaks open to mature travellers. Consistently, though, seat sales offer one of the best answers. Especially because we, who have reached the age of wisdom, are generay free to travel off-peak when the sales apply.

(Ask me sometime to tell you about the $146 return fare Toronto to Saskatoon we scored on an Air Canada seat sale. Our grandchildren in Saskatchewan loved it!)

But seat sales, like most other techniques for getting airline bargains, aren’t always easy to find. You need to plan.
· Check with your travel agent or the airline to find when a sale is expected.
· Know your preferred departure dates.
· Leave yourself as flexible as possible.
· Check the news section of the newspaper for the ads.
Often, reduced seats go fast, so you need to be prepared. If it’s tough getting hold of the airline offering the sale, try the competition because they’ll probably match the sale immediately.

Scheduled vs. charter airlines
Where possible, I prefer to travel on scheduled airlines rather than charters. Charters often offer great prices, but there’s the reliability factor. In addition, with a large family back home, I like to feel I could get home quickly in an emergency.

Besides, charters are not as senior-friendly in their pricing policies.

Our national carrier, Air Canada and Canadian Airlines, usually offer at least a 10 per cent discount for people 60-plus – although you should check whether that applies to a particular seat sale. 
· Be sure to mention your age.
· Remember – you save more by travelling mid-week.

Charters generally offer a $20 senior discount each way on flights to Europe, but none to Florida or within Canada. If you’re travelling with a child or grandchild, though, charters usually give a better break on children’s fares than the regular airlines.

We can thank Canada 3000 too, for bringing down trans-Pacific prices since it introduced charter flights to Australia, Fiji and Hawaii although, regrettably, without an age discount.

No seat sale?
For years, travelling to Europe, we have paid rock bottom prices at a reputable national travel chain that has a non-publicized deal with British Airways. You can find these so-called consolidator deals, most common on flights to Britain and India, by scanning the small ads in your newspaper’s travel section.

If you have the travel bug, and aren’t too fussy where you go, check out:
· Canadian’s website, www.cdnair.ca on Wednesdays for upcoming weekend specials.
· Air Canada will even e-mail you their weekly specials every Wednesday if you register at their site, www.aircanada.ca
It won’t hurt to ask for an age reduction on these, too.

Travelling to Europe?
Britain, because of intense charter competition, is usually the cheapest destination. From there, especially if you have relatives or friends who can book for you, you can get great deals from local economy airlines.
· Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com), for instance, was recently offering a $140 return fare London-Venice.

Watch out, too, for airlines starting new routes. Almost invariably, in the first few weeks they offer never-to-be-repeated bargains to get things going.

Airline points
Then there are the frequent flyer and Air Miles plans to complicate the picture. Most of us are not high-flying executives with enough points to go three times around the world. Flying maybe two or three times a year, we have to be canny with our points.

It pays to stick to one airline so you accumulate enough points for rewards faster. Some people, however, become so obsessed with collecting points that they’ll fly way out of their way and incur extra expense to get them. Saving money – and time – should come ahead of saving points.

My advice is to cash in your rewards as soon as possible, especially if you’re an infrequent-frequent flyer. Airlines have a nasty habit of upping the amount of points you need for a reward just as you were about to reach your goal. If you don’t quite have enough points for a ticket, it’s worth buying a few extra points – usually for three cents a point – to make up your total and, as tickets are good for a year, you don’t have to travel right away.

Air miles
The  air miles you get at the gas station and grocery store have taken the nation by a storm. But Jennifer Hillard of the Consumers Association of Canada, warns that there are so many restrictions on their use that, like some CAC members, you may meet disappointment when it comes time to cash in your miles.

“They’re not like cash,” she says. In fact, like the green stamps of yesteryear, they actually add to our shopping costs and are of minimal value.

There are restrictions, too, on airline frequent flyer points, she says, but they’re generally easier to use and include bonuses like upgrades to business class and the privilege of using airline lounges – a real plus for some older travellers. In both plan types, Hillard suggests, you should try to get your ticket well ahead, and don’t make plans until you have it.

Points in peak seasons
You get maximum value from your points if you act early and use them at peak season when you would otherwise have had to pay top dollar for your ticket.

If possible, you should also use them on long haul flights – to continental Europe or the Orient, for instance – where there are no charters to provide competition and keep prices down.

And if the airline goofs and causes you discomfort and inconvenience, here’s a final money-wise tip: Write a polite letter to the airline’s customer service department, explaining exactly what went wrong, including times and flight numbers and, if possible, names of staff you dealt with.

Unhappy customers are the last thing airlines want, and it is usual industry practice to send out a voucher towards a future flight in order to keep us happy.