Taking a plane

If you like low fares, help keep the little airlines in business.

If you like low-cost airlines, there's just one rule: Use it or lose it.

Competition is the only thing that holds down air fares. Why would it cost $699 to fly from the Twin Cities to Kansas City, but only $99 to fly from the Twin Cities to Chicago?

Once, when Northwest Airlines had serious competition on its route to Chicago but not to Kansas City, those were the round-trip fares. Then, in May 2008, AirTran discontinued its flights from the Twin Cities to Chicago because they were "unprofitable," meaning that Northwest matched or surpassed its fares. Round-trip fares to Chicago rose to $400.

The same thing happened when Vanguard flew from the Twin Cities to its hub in Kansas City. I was delighted by Vanguard's fares, because Missouri is so much nicer than Minnesota in spring. Once, I spent $58 to fly there for a late-March week, hiking and paddling amid blooming forsythia and hawthorn. I spent $51 to fly to Chicago for a Valentine's weekend, and I took my whole family to Florida for $400.

I liked Vanguard. Its lines at the airport were shorter, its planes were on time and its young flight attendants were friendly.

But Northwest matched Vanguard's low fares until it surrendered and withdrew from the Twin Cities market. Why did so many people book with Northwest instead of Vanguard? For some, because Northwest was more familiar, and for others, it was because they wanted to build up their frequent-flier miles.

So they got miles worth perhaps $7 per trip, but their loyalty to Northwest cost them royally once Vanguard was gone and fares went up by hundreds of dollars.

So when you see the same fare offered by two or three airlines, ask yourself which airline is keeping prices from rising. Then buy your ticket on that airline.

Use it — or lose it.

Now, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, whose arrival has been eagerly anticipated for years, flies the Twin Cities-Chicago-Midway route; as soon as it entered the market, fares dropped.

And I still fly AirTran whenever I can. AirTran still flies from the Twin Cities non-stop to Orlando, where my sister lives; it has two non-stops a day, and fares usually are around $220. It also flies non-stop to to its hub in Atlanta, where passengers can catch connections to the East Coast, West Coast and other destinations in the South; and to Milwaukee, where Twin Cities travelers can connect to Florida; Boston, New York and Washington, D.C; and the West Coast.

Also check fares on Sun Country, whose hub is Minneapolis-St. Paul. It has very good fares to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as warm-weather destinations.

People who live in Milwaukee are even luckier. Southwest flies out of Milwaukee to all corners of the nation (although not Minneapolis), with non-stops to such cities as Kansas City, Baltimore, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

It has bought AirTran, which offers non-stops from Milwaukee to dozens of U.S. destinations, including Orlando, New York City and San Francisco. In the West, its partner is Frontier, whose hub is Denver. Frontier also flies nonstop to the Twin Cities and Chicago.

In Milwaukee, the hometown airline, Midwest Airlines, has merged with Frontier.

Until Delta bought it, Northwest was the hometown airline in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Its hub still gives Twin Cities many non-stop flights, so I want it to stay in business, too. So I fly Delta whenever it offers a good fare.

To get a good fare, sign up for alerts from such services as Airfarewatchdog or Kayak.

You can also get a sense of prices by checking the search engines — Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak. If you can travel Saturday-Monday instead of Friday-Sunday, you'll save big. Midweek arrivals and departures also cost less.

When you see a fare you like, go directly to the airline's web site and check the fare there. Often, it'll be $5-$10 cheaper, and it may be much cheaper.

If you can, book through the airline instead of a search engine; if problems arise, it's much easier to deal directly with the airline. However, Expedia and its brethren often offer the best options on international fares that involve multiple airline partners.

You'll save most if your vacation times are flexible. And if you see a price you like, don't hold out for a better one; snap it up.

Last updated on February 22, 2011

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