Play the hand you’re dealt. That goes for dealing with Delta Air Lines, which dominates the Memphis air travel market and is largely responsible for Memphis having the highest average fares in the country ($476).
Giving Delta its due, leisure travelers have ways to undercut that price considerably by picking their dates and destinations and by taking advantage of special fares and promotions. Here are three strategies I’ve found useful:
First, take advantage of seasonal specials. In December, Delta was offering a nonstop, round-trip ticket from Memphis to Tampa in January for $307, a one-stop to Orlando for $274, and a one-stop to Fort Myers for $242.
Florida is obviously an attractive destination in winter, and it’s one state where Memphians still have a lot of choices and the benefit of competition. AirTran was offering a $242 January fare to Fort Myers, and US Airways beat that with a $233 fare. Using a price-comparison website such as Kayak is a must. Prices change daily. One day Delta’s Fort Myers fare was $248; the next day it was $242. With package specials on hotels and rental cars, a long weekend for two could cost under $500.
My second strategy is Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” option. My children live in Montana, where the lowest Delta fare is usually around $600 with an advance purchase. In January, however, my son will be flying home for $400 thanks to Priceline. And he’ll be taking the same Delta flight that would have cost more than $600 if he had booked it through the airline.
Priceline is a gamble, but its rules have changed to the benefit of the customer.
You can only have one intermediate stop, and you can bid more than once if your price is rejected. The turnaround time is short, sometimes only a few minutes. I find it takes no longer to book a ticket through Priceline than it does through Delta.
My third strategy is Delta’s frequent-flyer program known as Sky Miles. I have found it to be almost as complicated and frustrating as the tax code, unfortunately.
The goal, of course, is to get a free ticket. But the mileage levels can be as low as 25,000 miles or as high as 60,000 miles, depending on destination and month of travel. It is nearly impossible to know in advance how many miles will be required and how many seats, if any, will be available.
In December, Delta was offering a “100 percent mileage bonus when you transfer miles” to another Sky Miles member. If you transferred 5,000 miles, Delta doubled that to 10,000 miles and so on. But the fine print revealed that it cost a penny a mile, plus a $30 processing fee. So those alluring 5,000 miles cost the giver $80.
The math made me feel like I was back in high school. I had 28,000 miles in my account and my daughter had 7,000 miles. Delta’s second threshold is 32,000 miles, so my daughter could give me 2,000 miles at a cost of $50. But she has a bunch of weddings to go to in 2012 and will be flying more than I will. So I could give her 13,000 miles to bring her account up to 33,000 miles, but it would cost $160. And there would be no guarantee that there would be any frequent-flyer seats on the flights she wants. And if there are, the cost could be 40,000 or 60,000 miles.
As Delta said in the fine print, “Award travel seats are limited and may not be available on all flights or in all markets.”
After spending a couple of days crunching the numbers and talking to a customer service representative who was as inscrutable as a blackjack dealer in Tunica, I decided to take 2,000 miles from my daughter’s account, betting that in 2012 there will be some place I want to go when and where 32,000 miles will do the trick.
That leaves my daughter with 5,000 miles. For such small fry, Delta has another offer which is near and dear to my heart, if not hers: free magazine subscriptions.
Happy reading, girl.