How to work shoulder season for cheap airline tickets

Interstate air carriers that fly from Alaska to the Lower 48 are spooling up for a busy summer. By comparison, springtime is shoulder season. That should translate into lower prices, in order to fill up airplane seats that are flying up and down the coast.

But airlines hate to cut prices. In fact, they're saving their really low prices for the peak summer season, when summer-only carriers like JetBlue come to call.

Still, there are other, less visible ways for airlines to trim prices or boost benefits to attract new customers. I call one of those methods the "short game." It's geared to last-minute travelers. That includes business travelers as well as families who need to travel immediately (often to be at the bedside of relatives who are sick or dying).

Most airfares require a 14- to 21-day advance purchase to secure the best rate. But right now, a handful of destinations are available with no advance purchase. They are truly "buy today, fly today" deals. Let's look at some of the best deals. But read further for the "twist" or unintended consequences as airlines rush to compete with one another.

Anchorage-Los Angeles: This is one of my favorite routes. You can go out to the airport right now and get a ticket for $180 one-way on Alaska, Delta or United. Alaska has a nonstop flight that sometimes costs a little more. Otherwise, Alaska will route you on their nonstop flights to Seattle or Portland. Delta will take you to Seattle first. United will fly you through Denver. Pay attention to the connecting cities — the plot thickens.

Keep in mind that Los Angeles also is an international hub. Last-minute fares are available to Reykjavik for $190 one-way on WowAir, or to Scandinavia (Oslo, Stockholm or Copenhagen) for as little as $180 one-way on Norwegian.

Anchorage-Las Vegas: You have to do a bit of flying to get the best deal, but you can leave today on United Airlines for $171 each way (via Denver). Alaska Air has a nonstop for as little as $212 each way.

Anchorage-Calgary: Remember: You'll need your passport to fly to Calgary. The buy-today-fly-today price is $184 each way on Alaska Airlines (via Seattle).

Anchorage-Boston: Fly all the way from Anchorage for $252 one way with no advance purchase. Just go out to the airport and get on United (via Chicago) or Delta (via Minneapolis).

Anchorage-Orlando: United Airlines is selling one-way tickets through Denver or Chicago for $248 one-way. Again, no advance purchase is required.

There are a couple of other destinations where you can fly right now for cheap: Anchorage-St. Louis for $279 each way (Delta, United or Alaska Air), Anchorage-Phoenix for $185 one-way (United) or Anchorage-Tucson for $180 one-way (United).

Tickets to most of the above cities are available for less money if you plan ahead.

What about Seattle and Portland? Well, these two popular destinations are not on the list. Still, many of the planes flying to the aforementioned destinations pass through the airports.

Both Delta and Alaska Air charge $558 one-way for last-minute one-way tickets to Seattle. Actually, if you belong to Alaska Air's Club 49 program, you get a pair of "Fly Now" e-certificates that are good for a 30 percent break on full coach tickets. That brings the one-way cost down to $411. If you want to fly on Alaska Air's nonstop to Portland at the last minute, the cost is $623 one-way.

Part of the fallout when airlines start offering far-flung destinations at a discount is that the planes pass through some pricey hubs along the way. For example, when you take that cheap, one-way fare to Boston for $252 on United, you pass through Chicago. But if you just bought a one-way ticket on United to Chicago, the price would be $728. One-way. If you opted for Delta, the airline would route you through Minneapolis. And if you bought just a one-way ticket to Minneapolis from Anchorage, the last-minute fare would be $743. If United routes you through Denver from Anchorage on its daily nonstop flight, the standalone cost for that segment is $740 one-way.

Here comes the twist.

The practice of getting a ticket to Los Angeles or Boston as a way to lessen the cost of a ticket to Seattle or Minneapolis is called "point-beyond" or "hidden city" ticketing. The airlines frown on this practice. In fact, airlines come right out and say that this practice is a violation of their terms of service or "contract of carriage."

One website, Skiplagged.com, displays these "point-beyond" routings to many cities.

For example, you'll find an itinerary from Anchorage to Seattle for $180 one-way at the last minute, although the ticketed itinerary continues to Los Angeles. Similar itineraries are displayed when searching for flights to Chicago, Denver or Minneapolis.

United and Orbitz.com sued the founder of the site, 24-year-old Aktarer Zaman, for "unfair competition" and "deceptive behavior." The suit was dismissed in 2015.

If you want more information on one of the point-beyond fares, Skiplagged prompts you to consider several things:

1. You cannot check your bags using a point-beyond ticket. The airline will not check a bag just partway.

2. Don't use a frequent flier number. The airline might close your account, saying that you are violating its "contract of carriage."

3. In case of bad weather, you may be rerouted to get to your ticketed destination. That could be a problem — and you would have no recourse with the airline.

4. "You might also upset the airline."

All of the point-beyond tickets are one-way fares and they don't work in reverse. You have to purchase a separate ticket or use your frequent flier miles to return.

Point-beyond ticketing is an unintended consequence of intense airline competition. With competition comes lower fares. And with lower fares, sites like Skiplagged lose their appeal.

Airline prices change all the time. In the meantime, Skiplagged's Zaman says he thinks United will attempt another lawsuit to shut down his website.

    Article How to work shoulder season for cheap airline tickets compiled by www.adn.com

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