He is a professional with wanderlust, a bargain hunter, and a technophile. So when Andre Matsuda decided to follow a whim and visit Hong Kong, he started his adventure by cruising the World Wide Web. That's where some of the cheapest airline tickets can be had these days. With a little browsing and the confirming click of his mouse, Matsuda electronically locked in a $2,400 first-class round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific Airways nine months before his trip. He saved more than 55% on the regular $5,500 fare.
The Cathay deal is one of hundreds of travel bargains available to cybersurfers willing to invest a little time. The Web is laden with special airfares, credits for free hotel rooms, and bonus frequent-flier miles. Some carriers such as American Airlines and USAir send E-mail notification of reduced-price offerings to those who sign up through an Internet site. Others, such as Carnival Air, simply post cheap specials on the Web. Hilton, ITT Sheraton, and Hyatt hotels provide special bonuses for customers who book reservations online. And Avis supplies car-rental discounts through the American and Hilton Internet sites. A search engine such as Yahoo! can guide the way to Web pages for various travel providers.
Matsuda, a budget administrator for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, got his cut-rate fare by bidding in a cyberspace auction he read about in The Wall Street Journal. The auction of a Boeing 747's seats took place on Cathay's CyberTraveler site (www.cathaypacific.com) last summer. The flight was to depart from Los Angeles, and Matsuda used CompuServe to book a round-trip flight on the United Air Lines shuttle between San Francisco and L.A., earning him the regular frequent-flier credits of 600 miles plus a 500-mile bonus.
Online auctions are an increasingly popular way for carriers to advertise new routes or to raise their profile with the flying public. In general, auctions are open to members of an airline's frequent-flier program or to people who register in advance on a carrier's Web site. Most airlines set minimum prices for each seat-class and accept E-mail bids over several weeks. Payment methods vary. Cathay Pacific requires winning bidders to pay with personal checks to avoid last-minute cancellations. American, Northwest, and Icelandair are among the carriers that also hold periodic auctions.
Cybersurfers also have access to last-minute weekend airfares. Northwest Airlines (www.nwa.com) offers reduced rates to all comers, while you have to register with American's NetSAAver, USAir's E-Saver (www.usair.com), and Continental's COOL (www.flycontinental.com) programs. The last three send out E-mail updates every Wednesday on special weekend rates, which usually require a Saturday departure and a return by Tuesday evening. But the postings change frequently, making it impossible to plan trips in advance at the cheaper fares. On Nov. 16, for example, USAir offered a round-trip fare of $259 from Philadelphia to Rome leaving on Nov. 20 and returning on Nov. 24.
American Express wants to attract travelers looking to book complete vacations. So its Web site offers 11th-hour bargains on airfares, getaway packages, and cruises. For example, at the end of October, AmEx offered a nine-day Renaissance Cruise to the Greek islands departing on Nov. 5 at a cost of $995 per person, including airfare from New York plus two nights at an Athens hotel. So far, Continental Airlines is the only carrier participating in the AmEx travel deals, but more are expected to join in the coming months, an AmEx spokeswoman says.
NO WARNING. A growing number of hotels and resorts are also offering special treatment to online customers. For example, Hilton Hotels is awarding, through Nov. 30, 1,000 points for every reservation made online through its HHonors Reward Exchange program (www.hilton.com). The points can be redeemed for hotel stays or frequent-flier miles with 12 airlines, including America West, Delta Air Lines, and Mexicana Airlines. For every Sheraton stay booked on the Web, (www.sheraton.com) customers earn 250 bonus SCI ClubMiles. The credits go toward room upgrades, free nights (for 3,000 ClubMiles each), or Avis car rentals. Hyatt Hotels & Resorts offers a similar deal through its Gold Passport program (www.hyatt.com), giving Web-booking travelers 500 points for every reservation. Typically 8,000 points will get you a free room for one weekend night.
Since deals come and go quickly, and often appear without warning, bargain hunters must be prepared to check the key Web sites frequently. But if cruising the Web leads to cruising the high seas at a fabulous discount, then the time has been well spent.