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united airlines airplaneI was hunched over my laptop, searching for flights to Montreal, when I hit pay dirt. I’d first checked fares a month or two earlier, only to see unpalatable prices in the $500’s and $600’s for a roundtrip flight from the East Coast. But when I looked this time, they were under $350. Score!

Excited, I consulted Bing.com/travel, which offers a Price Predictor tool that advises travelers whether to purchase or wait for a cheaper fare. “Buy,” said Bing, claiming with “80% confidence” that fares would continue to rise. Clearly the time was right to pull out my credit card.

Except for one little problem. It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t book until I’d confirmed my desired vacation days at the office on Monday. Who knew how much the fares might change in 48 hours?

Then I noticed an option called “FareLock” on the United Airlines Web site. “United’s FareLock service allows you to hold your itinerary and fare for 72 hours or seven days, for a fee, and is available on select flights. So go ahead and book your flight while you complete and confirm your travel plans. Our FareLock service will guarantee an available seat and the fare you were quoted at the time you booked your reservation.”

Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

I’d never been so happy to pay an airline fee in my life. For a nonrefundable $14, I was able to hold my seats, itinerary and fare for the following week, giving me time to clear my vacation days with the office and to keep an eye on the fare to make sure it didn’t drop any lower. It didn’t; nor did it go up as I’d feared. In the end the sub-$350 fare was still available a week later when I finally booked it, and would have been even without the FareLock. But as someone who’s been burned in the past by wildly fluctuating airfares, I don’t consider that $14 wasted — to me, the peace of mind was worth every penny.

FareLock has been around for nearly two years now (it started as a Continental service, then was adopted by United after the carriers merged). So why haven’t more airlines followed suit? It seems like a win/win: useful for travelers who need a little more time to book, and lucrative for airlines that are eager to scoop up yet more revenue in fees. As of now, the only airlines I know of that offer similar services are KLM, whose “Time to Think” option allows travelers to lock in an itinerary for up to two weeks, and Spanish carrier Vueling, which permits a 24-hour reservation hold.

See the Latest Worldwide Airfare Sales

A new Web site called steadyfare.com, currently in beta, could offer some promise on this front. The site allows travelers to lock in a given “steadyfare” for a particular itinerary, and hold it for two to four weeks. But the site is a long way from prime time; the airports and travel dates available are currently very limited, and you can’t yet choose your preferred airline or flight schedule.

Have you used FareLock or similar services on other airlines? Are they worth the price?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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4 Responses to “An Airline Fee We Might Actually Want to Pay”

  1. The earlier you buy your ticket, the more you can save, particularly if you are travelling close to Christmas or during school holidays.
    There are significant price rises on last-minute tickets or tickets bought a few days before travel with most domestic carriers, but travellers have the potential to save on their airfares by planning ahead and booking early.
    Buy flights at 4pm on Friday.Several airlines release their weekly sales on Friday afternoons, and once an airline drops its prices, others often respond within the hour.

  2. What I am hearing from the airlines is that they want me to drive instead of fly to my destination. I think airlines should reimburse passengers that have to sit through a flight with a crying baby that can’t be soothed. Instead I have Ryan air with change fees so high that it’s usually cheaper to buy another ticket, and so that I sometimes have to buy two tickets for flights.

  3. Even though this wouldn’t have helped in your timeframe it’s good to keep in mind that you generally have 24 hours now to cancel a reservation without a fee. The U.S. Department of Transportation new rule took effect on 1/25/12. You can get a full refund on all airline tickets if you cancel within 24 hours of making the reservation as long as the departure date is at least one week away.

  4. Shellie says:

    American Airlines allows you to hold a reservation free of charge for 24 hours. You have the option to return to pay online, pay with cash or another method at a ticketing center or complete the transaction at a Western Union.

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