Deciphering airfares is almost as difficult as understanding Peyton Manning's offense. You have fare bases, fare codes and buckets; refundable tickets, nonrefundable tickets, upgradeable tickets and not. And, oh yeah: A fares, B fares, Y fares and blackouts. Well, you get the point.
ExpertFlyer.com is changing all that. Normally, I'm reluctant to embrace Web sites that promise a better travel experience than you can get on your own, but this one I cannot resist telling you about.
ExpertFlyer has been around for a couple of years, providing information by subscription on airfares, upgrades, award tickets, seat availability and other things that frequent fliers care about. When the company asked me to review the service a year ago, I said no. But recently, after hearing some success stories, I decided to take it on a test flight. Unwittingly, I tested the system to its outer limits.
The program works with almost every major airline, though award and upgrade information is limited to certain cooperating carriers, notably Northwest Airlines and American Airlines (for awards and upgrades) and Delta Air Lines (for upgrades). My particular quest was to search the availability of international upgrades on my preferred airline, Delta. Only after meeting with ExpertFlyer's president, Chris Lopinto, did I learn that this is the program's most daunting task, due to a quirk in how Delta provides information.
In technical terms, I was looking for flights that had "Z" availability, i.e., seats in the BusinessElite section which would allow me to use Delta PMU certificates or frequent-flier miles. Before using the program I spent a few hours on the phone with a Delta representative searching for a flight from Orange County, Calif., to Santiago, Chile. I tried every imaginable option, switching dates, flying into Buenos Aires -- even connecting through Sao Paulo.
Not getting anywhere, I powered up ExpertFlyer to see if it was up to the task.
What I found amazed me. Right there on the screen I saw "Z" -- meaning that two Z seats were available on the flights I wanted. Immediately I called Delta, this time with the information I needed. I specified the flights I was interested in and this time the answer was "Yes, sir."
"OK, lucky break," I thought. So I did a search on another route. Again, ExpertFlyer listed seats with upgrade availability, and Delta confirmed the result.
But the real payoff came when I decided to change my flight. This time one of the flight segments came up ineligible for an upgrade, so I enabled a nifty feature called "Flight Alert," which sends you an e-mail when the system determines that a desired booking class has become available. Two days later, which by coincidence was the deadline for booking the ticket, an alert came through informing me that an upgrade seat was available. I grabbed my coffee, sparked up the laptop and checked the availability again. Still there.
Still a little skeptical, I called Delta and asked if an upgrade had come through for my flight. The answer was "No." When I reported that ExpertFlyer was showing a G fare available (G is the international equivalent of a Z fare on domestic routes), the agent cleared up the confusion. She thought I had wanted a "segment upgrade", a complimentary upgrade that clears a certain number of days before your flight, depending on your membership level. The segment upgrade was not available, but the G fare was mine.
This trial underscores the importance of having good data. If I didn't have ExpertFlyer's detailed information, I would not have been able to press the agent to look up the proper upgrade code. With all due respect to reservation agents, there are the occasional few who either don't understand your request, don't really understand their reservation system, or are just plain lazy. But I had my arsenal ready and I was determined to get that last upgrade.
The ExpertFlyer program does have a learning curve. For example, you have to know what class category to enter, but that is easy enough to find with the quick "Look Up" feature. You also need to understand such things as "hidden codes," and I found the program to be more accurate when I entered a specific time instead of the default time (5 a.m.). And remember that the availability of award and upgrade information is limited to certain cooperating airlines, so check the list on the site's Help/FAQ page before signing up.
Overall, ExpertFlyer is a good tool that gives consumers unfettered and transparent access to travel intelligence, eliminating the need for third-party intervention and keeping them on the do-it-yourself track. It can serve you well. I, for one, will not fly without it.