Think those sale airfares are cheap? Think again!

Nary a day goes by when we don’t receive another email at Gadling from an airline or travel agent trumpeting the latest sale fare to this season’s hot destination. Fares like $215 to Barcelona, $199 to London and $400 to Buenos Aires tickle our travel fancies, filling us with the dream that we can score a dirt cheap international ticket and jetset away for an action packed, budget weekend.

Click through those links to the booking page, however, and your miracle sale fares will evaporate. But where did these original, quoted prices come from? Lets take a look.

In an advertisement (ie, email) that an airline sends to you, airfares are often only quoted one way. So the $215 fare that you see to Barcelona above is actually $430. That’s not a bad price until you also note that taxes and fees aren’t included, which for any transatlantic destination is a least $100. That pushes the price up to $530.

But that’s still a good sale price, right? Maybe not. Yesterday’s Air France sale advertised fares from New York to Madrid for $239. Making the ticket round trip with fees included (say, from March 3rd to March 10th) brings the price up to $570. That same fare on British Airways: $518. Air Europa (who?): $520. What kind of a sale is this?

The lesson here is that it’s important to keep both the advertorial angle and the competition in mind when considering a sale fare. Airlines send these emails out to get your brain engaged, drag you into their site and make a sale, but a good consumer does her homework, compares prices and knows when a fare is truly outstanding.
What works
You can throw nine out of ten of those sale emails into your trash bin as soon as they reach your inbox. Instead, set a fare alert on Kayak or Orbitz for low fares between key target cities (example: New York – London for under $300) and make sure it’s set to alert you every day.

Subscribe to newsletters like Airfarewatchdog and browse the wealth of fares available at Farecompare. They both have twitter feeds that you can follow as well. Keep an eye on Flyertalk for dirt cheap “mileage run” fares if you’ve got some extra time.

And last but not least, keep your head out of the ground when you get a “sale” email from the airlines or a travel agent. If the fare seems too good to be true even though it was mass emailed to fifty thousand people, it probably is.