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A Cautionary Tale for Bargain Air Fare Seekers

Flying * Many customers are delighted with discount-ticket brokers. But be aware that the savings come at the expense of flexibility.


My idea of a rewarding trip generally doesn't include the interchange of Interstates 110 and 105 near LAX. But that's where I found myself recently, surrounded by rush-hour commuters, a cell phone piping gentle Hawaiian you're-on-hold music into my ear.

If ever there were a fool's errand, this was it.

My destination was the Los Angeles office of Cheap Tickets, purveyor of discounted, heavily restricted airline tickets. The problem was that I needed to make a schedule change, and it was threatening to cost me $1,000.

This is not a condemnation of Cheap Tickets. Like other ticket discounters, Cheap Tickets sells a specialized product and makes thousands of customers happy by doing so. The company reported 1.8 million tickets sold last year.

But as my fiasco shows, you have to choose the right tool for any job.

Because an air fare discounter's tickets carry many restrictions, they are tools for somebody who is confident that his schedule won't change. Now I was sitting at the 110 and the 105, wondering how to make my wrong tool right.

It started commonly enough. My wife and I were headed to England this summer, and I thought I was sure of our travel dates. By the time I reached that level of confidence in June, it was too late to buy coach-class tickets using my frequent-flier miles.

And so, setting aside doubts, I did what many of my friends do: I called Cheap Tickets, telephone (800) 377-1000, Internet, waited through the Hawaiian music (the company is based in Honolulu) and landed a pair of Virgin Atlantic LAX-London tickets for about $800--$150 less apiece than I could find by having my travel agent buy them from the airlines.

So far, a happy story. And I've heard similar happy stories from customers of competitors such as Cheap Seats, tel. (800) 451-7200, Internet;, tel. (800) 359-4683, Internet; and Priceline, tel. (800) 340-0575, Internet, each of which commonly imposes limits and prohibitions when you change or cancel tickets.

In early July my life became more complicated. Because of an early August assignment, I would need to fly home from London nine days later than I had originally planned.

My first move: Call Cheap Tickets. Repeatedly. Busy signal. Busy signal. Ten minutes on hold and then disconnected.

My next move: Call Virgin Atlantic. The airline flies twice daily from London to LAX, but a reservations agent told me there were no plain coach-class seats available on my travel date or for five days thereafter. If I wanted to spend $1,004 more, I could buy a new premium economy-class ticket for my preferred travel day. Thank you, no.

What about miles? Couldn't I use my considerable American Express Reward Miles account to change my travel date and upgrade the ticket? No. A ticket purchased through a travel agent or airline would allow that sort of upgrade, but this Cheap Tickets booking did not.

Now I was getting unhappy. Virgin Atlantic's reservations agent and I turned over a few other ideas, all futile. I was sure a new one-way ticket from London to LAX on another airline would cost more than $1,000. (When I asked an agent to check a few days later, the number was $880.)

Wait, the Virgin reservation agent eventually said. What if you opened a Virgin Flying Club frequent-flier account today, moved 50,000 American Express reward points into it, and used them to buy a new Upper Class (first-class) ticket? This would gobble up several years' worth of American Express points--and it would leave my Cheap Tickets return ticket unused--but it would get me home the day I needed to travel.

I took note of all the calling and point-transferring and follow-up calling that would require and mentally filed it under Plan B. Then I tried Cheap Tickets again.

After more Hawaiian music, I got a reservations agent. Could I trade my Cheap Tickets return flight on Aug. 3 for one on a later date? Yes, at a cost of $225, plus any difference in ticket value, if there were seats of that type remaining in the Cheap Tickets inventory. He checked. There was one seat left, but he couldn't hold it for me. Instead, he said, I needed to appear at the Cheap Tickets counter and hope that nobody would snap up that ticket.

I grumbled, thought about money and grumbled more. If I rejected the airport mission, I would be forced to spend $1,000 or 50,000 American Express points (at 2 cents a mile, worth $1,000).

I drove home, grabbed the tickets (which I would need to hand over in person) and headed for LAX. By now it was the height of rush hour.

At 6 p.m., southbound on the 110, I called Cheap Tickets again to hear whether my magic ticket was still within reach.

At last a reservations agent spoke up. Yes, she said. There are several tickets of that type still available for that flight.

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