The only reason I went to Prague not long ago is that I had been sitting at my computer on a Tuesday afternoon in February.
While I was hammering away at my keyboard, a tweet popped up touting a major sale to Europe on Delta Airlines. A few clicks later, I had bought a round-trip ticket to Prague for an astonishingly low price — $350. A few hours later, those cheap fares were back up in the more customary $800 range.
Such unannounced and unadvertised pop-up sales are becoming more common, said George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, whose Twitter feed was the one that tipped me off. More typical, however, is that a particular domestic route — it can be almost any two cities — suddenly will be slashed on an airline with little fanfare. Anywhere from four to eight hours later, the "sale" is finished.
"I often say these sales are like cockroaches — if you see one, there are a lot more," Hobica said. "They're so quick that no way competitors can match."
But the good news for consumers is that the competitors often do respond. In the following days, other airlines might launch brief, quiet sales of their own. The secret side of fare wars is a boon primarily for the leisure traveler but also can help the more modest business traveler — that is, professionals operating on tighter budgets (possibly self-employed) who don't have corporate money behind them.
Such pop-up sales happen for a variety of reasons, Hobica said. Sometimes an airline is trying to get rid of a small number of open seats in a hurry. Other times they're testing fares to se e the point at which they'll sell.
Also common, he said, is airlines picking on each other: If Airline A cuts fares on a route that is key to Airline B, Airline B might respond by cutting rates on a route key to Airline A. O r else an airline can enter a competitor's hub and slash fares, which causes the longtime king of the block to respond.
"The point is not to fill up planes and give away the store," Hobica said. "The point is more often to say to their competitors, 'You screwed us; now we'll screw you.' That's why they call them fare wars."
Short of constantly searching for the fares yourself, the best avenue for finding them is signing up for email alerts or, better still, following companies on Twitter that make a living tracking such deals, like airfarewatchdog, travelzoo or trazzler. Such sales play to Twitter's greatest strength: immediacy.
An official with one of the major carriers — who didn't want to be named so it wouldn't appear he was price signaling, which is prohibited — said it's no secret that airlines constantly monitor their competitors and change prices accordingly.
"It's sort of a cat-and-mouse game with the hope that the competitor will always be a step behind," he said.
He acknowledged that the immediacy of the Internet allows for experimental pricing in the "no harm, no foul" category — meaning airlines can adjust prices on the fly. But deep cuts rarely stem from punitive measures, he said.
"I won't tell you (punitive rate cutting) has never happened," he said. "But I don't think it's a big factor."