The Arizona Republic’s Dawn Gilbertson wrote an article earlier this week talking about the fun-filled world of last minute web fares. According to the article, the web fares are a dying breed. I’m not quite sure I agree.
For those not in the know, the last minute webfares first came out in the mid 1990s. You could find out a couple days before the weekend where you could travel for cheap as long as you were willing to fly out on Saturday and come back that Monday or Tuesday. I’ve actually only bought one once, and it was on Alaska Airlines a couple summers ago from San Francisco to Portland to visit family for the weekend. It was a great deal, and I’ve been tempted many other times as well.
But now Dawn Gilbertson (whose writing I really enjoy), says that the good days are over. She argues that the fares have risen to a point where they are now not much different than regular fares, and there aren’t too many flights available. That’s probably true, but I’d guess it’s just due to the state of the industry right now, and that will likely change at some point.
For a time while I worked at America West, I managed the pricing of the last minute Surf ‘n Go fares. There were some great deals there, but we never saw tremendous volumes from it. It was easy to put together and it did fill some empty seats so it was always worthwhile. The yield management group would look at their systems every week and see what flights needed help. Those markets were sent to me and I’d slap some fares on them. These days, airlines are running really full planes so there aren’t going to be nearly as many last minute deals.
In reality, when these fares first launched the true value was in the loyalty it helped developed, not in filling seats. In the beginning, you could only find these fares if you subscribed to the newsletter and booked directly on the airline website. Now, there are plenty of places that aggregate the last minute fares so you don’t need to subscribe to the newsletter directly. In addition, many airlines allow you to book the fares on other websites. It’s not the loyalty builder it once was, so a lot of the value to the airlines has disappeared. . . but not all of it.
It’s still an effective way to put butts in seats, no matter how few, and you can sometimes find some great deals.
The week Ms Gilbertson looked at for US Airways had only 3 domestic e-savers from Phoenix- $200 roundtrips to Tucson and Yuma or $258 roundtrip to Palm Springs. Those clearly suck, but that could also have been just a bad weekend. Look at this weekend, and it’s a different story.
From Phoenix, I see $238 roundtrip to Atlanta, $218 roundtrip to Houston, and $128 roundtrip to San Diego. The best I can find flying out this Saturday and returning on Monday on any other airline is $596 to Atlanta, $198 to Houston (probably another last minute fare, everyone else is at least $496), and $222 to San Diego. So these are good deals to places people might actually want to go for a weekend.
So the last minute deal isn’t dead. It’s probably just taking a break. The reality is that as long as there are seats to fill and it doesn’t take much effort, the airlines will continue to put these things out there for you to buy.