July 23, 2007

Dealing with airfare sticker shock

At our second-to-last visit to the French consulate in San Francisco, the agent told us that if our visa applications were accepted we’d need to present not only our passports, but one-way plane tickets to France before we’d be issued our visas. We didn’t think this would be a problem until we started looking at actual air fare costs for the date we’d chosen for our departure (June 30).

While we knew that June and July are very busy months for tourism to France, and therefore airfare costs are significantly higher at that time, we hadn’t looked closely at airfares since we last traveled to France in 2003. When we entered our travel date on various travel and airline sites, we were shocked to see how expensive the flights were. Of course, if we had made reservations six months in advance we might have seen very different prices, but even so, the prices seemed high considering our flight date was still three months away.

Since we knew that these already high-priced fares would only continue to go up in price, we realized that we couldn’t wait until we got our visas before purchasing tickets. This was a risk since we didn’t know for certain if we’d get the visas, and we’d have to eat this cost if it turned out we were rejected or delayed beyond our travel date. After agonizing about it, we decided to go ahead and buy our tickets before knowing whether we’d get the visas, because if we did get the visas, and then tried to buy tickets, we’d be way out of our budget.

As we began the ticket-buying process, we hit a major snag; we found that most travel/airline Web sites don’t allow you to search for one-way flights, but the ones that did kept returning higher-priced fares for a one-way trip than for a round-trip! This seemed highly illogical to us, but we couldn’t see a way around it if we stuck to online purchases. So we set out to find a travel agent who could answer our questions about how to discover cheaper one-way fares. What we found was that most brick-and-mortar agencies couldn’t help us; most of them specialized in cruises, student travel, or package vacations, and weren’t set up to simply search for the best airfare for a single flight.

After many false starts, we found a company in the Yellow Pages that provided airfare quotes through their Web site. Although the company is based in San Francisco, it turned out that I could make all the arrangements via email (a plus for an introvert like me) from start to finish. This company, Airbound, operates online, but it is different from other travel sites in that an actual person contacts you about your fare request. Since we had a lot of variables to sort out (one-way ticket, pet-friendly airline, very specific travel date) this personal contact made it much easier for me to get answers to specific questions so that we could find the perfect airfare for our needs.

I was very impressed with the agent who responded to my request; she was extremely helpful and prompt in replying to my questions. She eventually found us a good deal on a Northwest flight; the only catch was that we had to leave a day later than we had planned, but this turned out not to be a problem in the end. As I mention in another post (Flying the furry skies: Transporting our cat to France) the fact that the flight was with Northwest made it much easier for us to transport our cat. About seven weeks later, when we finally got word we’d been granted visas, we were very glad that we had our tickets already in hand. It was one less detail to sort out in the short amount of time remaining to us before we left for France.

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