Thinking of invoking the “best fare guarantee?” Caveat emptor.

When you’re out comparison shopping for plane tickets, nine times out of ten you’ll find the best fares directly on airline websites. Carriers do this to “train” you to refer to their websites anytime you want to purchase a ticket – and to not shop around. And it’s a reasonable balance, because travel agent websites like Orbitz or Travelocity will charge you a few extra dollars for booking. Running a search on a metacrawler like Kayak or Mobissimo proves this, as often you’ll see prices five to ten dollars lower compared from an individual carrier’s website to something like Expedia.

To further incentivize you to use their websites, most carriers further offer what’s called a “Best Fare Guarantee,” effectively saying that if you find the exact same ticket on another website that is a lower price than theirs, they’ll match the cost and often may give you a voucher for your time.

In theory, this sounds like a good practice, and once in a while you actually do find cheaper fares on third party websites that are tempting to purchase. But filing a claim for an adjustment is harder than you think.Before you even file a claim, you first need to make 100% certain that you’re comparing the exact same ticket between bookings. This includes the:

  • Same date
  • Same flights and flights numbers
  • Same booking class

Assuming all of these have been fastidiously audited, you now need to purchase the more expensive ticket and have your claim reviewed by the airline to see if they can replicate the result. And the airline will do anything to make sure that you don’t fit the bill.

Reading most Best Fare Guarantee terms and conditions, you’ll see that the airline has twenty four hours to get back to you on your claim. Fare pricing is uploaded multiple time every day, however, and is further based on real-time availability. For example, if you book the last deeply discounted “K” fare on, all of the remaining fares are going to be in more expensive fare classes and therefore invalid for the claim. Even if there are still seats left in your fare class, ticket prices can change over night, and by the time the reviewing agent verifies your claim the entire cost structure could be different. An unfortunate delay in reviewing, or intentional sandbagging to invalidate your request? Nobody knows.

Another way airlines invalidate your claim is by scrutinizing the booking class. Often times, sites like Orbitz make it difficult (again, intentional?) for you to find the fare class in which you’re booked, so passengers erroneously think that fares are in the same bucket. Your claim auditor at the airline, however, won’t let this fly.

The worst part is, once the airline rejects your claim you’re stuck with your already purchased ticket. If you happen to be inside of the 24 hour return window (for non-refundable tickets), you can act quick and return the ticket and purchase on the other site (if the fare still exists), but the airline is counting on you to be too angry or too late to do this and just give in and pay.

My recommendation? Book via the third party website and take the hours and headache put into getting your fare equalized to the park and play with your kids. Trust me, you’ll be happier that you did it.

Got your own Best Fare Guarantee story? Post it in the comments and we’ll post some success stories.