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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