Quick quiz: What has more levels than the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, is more confusing than a Russian novel, has more twists and turns than an Olympic slalom and is subject to more restrictions than a mugger on parole?
The answer? This year's international air-fares package.
Try this little test: Call half a dozen airlines and ask them to quote the lowest fare to, say, Rome, in midsummer with a stopover in Amsterdam en route. Tell them you want to go midweek, returning on a weekend, and stay 10 days.
Wait an hour. Call those six airlines and ask the question again.
Many Different Answers
You'd be amazed at how many different answers you'll get . . . not only from competing carriers, but also from different reservation agents at the same airline.
Keeping track of the available fares (variously designated in travelese as "Y" or "J" or "YHX" or "Y2") has become a task almost too difficult even for the airlines that created them.
Dozens of fare types will be available this summer, some of them more or less common to all, some to one carrier, some shared by only a handful. Some fares offered by all come with different sets of restrictions, depending on the airline involved.
Some airlines offer senior fares and youth rates. Others don't. Some discount seats must be bought 14 days in advance, some 7, some 21.
It's not that the airlines haven't tried to simplify things. Every year we hear how a particular carrier has decided to take the guesswork out of the process of booking passage abroad.
Follow the Competitor
It will offer only three or four basic fare types, eliminating the two dozen on its books. Soon after, however, one of the carrier's competitors introduces, or retains, a special discount fare that has proven appeal for its clientele. So carrier No. 1 has to offer it as well.
Then another competitor takes that fare and decides to "refine" it, making the levels, or the restrictions, different in midweek and on weekends. And it may decide that the midweek price should be just a little lower.
Suddenly that one "special" fare has become three.
And so it goes.
Even with their billion-dollar computer equipment, it isn't always guaranteed that the airlines will get the right answer to a simple question: "How much does it cost?"
When you get down to doing some serious shopping, you can call around to various airlines or visit your neighborhood travel agency.
The advantage of doing the latter is that the travel agent is likely to have as much access to fare information, through an automated reservations system, as the airline does, but the travel agent will have it for more carriers.
Pan Am, for example, will tell you what its own fares are, or will be, from May 31 on, or whenever its peak season starts. The travel agent will tell you what Pan Am's fares are, plus those of its competitors. Or at least as many fares as can be extracted from the computer terminals.
If an agent doesn't have the answer on a screen, he or she will know how to contact the airline rate desks by telephone for added input.
It's not a foolproof system, of course. Travel agents don't have a lock on the fares situation any more than the airlines do. But they tend to have a better handle on the overall picture.
Consider what happened when I was gathering information for this article. I contacted three travel agents and four airlines and asked for round-trip fare information.
Take Your Pick
Here's what I found:
The advance purchase excursion fare (APEX) to London this summer will be $754 or $815, depending on who you ask. The business-class price will be $3,346 or $3,289.
To Rome, one airline has the basic economy-class fare pegged at $1,872, another at $1,799. The APEX to Rome is $918, or $899, or $905. Take your pick.
The secret, perhaps, is to view price as just one component of the to buy or not to buy decision making process. Is a specific airline's departure (and arrival) time the one that best suits you? If not, is it worth paying another $25 or $50 to fly with the one that is best?
Can you, without significant inconvenience, leave in midweek rather than on a weekend? If so, maybe you can save a few bucks by flying with the right carrier.
These are the kinds of things you have to take into account, as well as the bottom line.
If you're accustomed to flying first class, maybe it doesn't matter how much the fare is. But just for interest's sake, the first-class rates to the two European destinations mentioned earlier are $5,382 and $5,274.
If you think the more expensive one is Rome, because it's farther away, you're wrong. The $5,382 seat is to the closer of the two, London. Just one of the anomalies of the international air transportation pricing system.
Distance doesn't determine fare levels; national interest, bilateral and multilateral negotiation and competition are the real determinants.