Opinion – 5/27/2003

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The Panolian – "Big Easy" by John Howell Sr.

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pick up the 5/27/03  issue of The Panolian

Finding ‘Cheap’ Tickets Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be


My multi-talented neighbor, bluesman and tourist carriage driver J. Monque’D, will leave for Italy in July. This he announced early this week when I answered his signature, window-rattling knock at my front door.

"RAP-RAPPA-RAP-RAP, RAP-RAP. Ding-Dong." He always follows his knock with a ring of the door bell, as though we might have not heard the former nor noticed the pictures shaking on our walls from the aftershocks.

"John, I’m going to Italy in July; wonder if I could go on the web and find me some cheap tickets."

For a moment, I savored the respite that this trip would bring. That means he’ll be gone for an extended period, giving us a break while he gets one also. We love our friend and neighbor, but sometimes he’s just a little bit intense. Then I remembered that anytime he’s ever tried to navigate the web, I’ve had to be right there to answer questions, give instructions and generally try to calm him when the computer or the web launches into one of their many idiosyncrasies. I learned that unless he just wants to check his email, it’s easier for me to do the navigating while he sits on a stool behind me, looking on.

With that thought, I realized that we would be exploring an arena of the web as yet unknown to me, this business of making travel arrangements. J. was pumped up by TV programs lauding how cheap it is nowadays to fly to Europe or anywhere else, hawking great deals on ridiculously low airfares. "$99 to Timbuktu!" The travel experts on talk shows and commercials make you feel like a fool for not having been there already with these ridiculously low rates.

With J. confident that somebody out there would almost be willing to pay him to fly on their jet airplane, we began our search, initially offering Priceline.com $100 for a round trip ticket from New Orleans to somewhere in Italy. It was turned down. He kept upping the offer in $50 increments, but it kept turning him down, informing us that the ticket he wanted was something over $1,200.

Then we tried another site. There are as many websites out their for bargain travel as planes in the sky, I guess. Cheapfare.com, cheapair.com, jettingjenny.com, hennypenny.com and so on. Each website’s home page has banner ads along the sides advertising low rates: "New York to London for $250"; "Fly to Amsterdam for $100" and such. But when we filled in his departure and arrival cities and times, the "bargain" ticket from each site kept coming back in about the same price range – $1,200.

"WHAT IN THE WORLD?," J. kept asking. And asking. And asking – to no one in particular. Then we tried changing departure and arrival cites to match those advertised in the banners. "I can get to New York on the train; I’ve got friends there who’d take me to the airport; in London I could get a Eurail pass … ." We tried Denver, Atlanta, New York as departure possibilities; Milan, Bologna, London, Amsterdam, Rome and ad nauseum as destinations. Each time, the ticket price would come back many times higher than the one the price listed on the banner.

"WHAT IN THE WORLD? I MEAN, HOW CAN THEY DO THAT? IT SAYS ‘NEW YORK TO LONDON FOR $250,’ BUT WHEN YOU TYPE IT IN, IT COMES BACK NOWHERE NEAR THAT. WHAT IN THE WORLD?."

And so it went for an hour and a half, from one website to another, from one city to another, swapping days and times for departure and return. The consistency throughout from one travel website to the next was that the price for the same trips and times was pretty close and always much higher than those advertised in the banners.

Finally after one more "WHAT IN THE WORLD?" I copied a toll-free number from a website and told him to call the number and ask them. He left that afternoon with the number in his hand.

"RAP-RAPPA-RAP-RAP, RAP-RAP; Ding Dong" came the familiar entrance prelude the following evening.

"John, I found out about those low fares." he said. "I called them up and talked to this lady and she explained it to me; she said …" and right then I knew that somewhere in toll-freedomland some phone operator was no doubt exhausted from her day’s work. She also probably had to take aspirin after her unsuspecting encounter with J. Monque’D. on the telephone. You can bet that she explained it; then he repeated it back, and she explained it again and so on until she had a headache.

Basically what the lady said, to paraphrase J. Monque’D., was that they do have those low-priced tickets that they advertise, but usually just a few of them. Of course those tickets are snatched up as quickly as they become available. Some people even have computer programs that continually search for cheap tickets, and when those few tickets go on sale, the computer program buys them automatically. Or so the explanation went.

That means that at any time, somewhere on the internet an air travel bargain might suddenly become available. If you’re lucky, you might be there and get to snatch it up yourself at fraction of the usual ticket cost. Or, it could mean that you could buy a ticket at a price that suits you today and tomorrow find a ticket for half that. It’s a crap shoot.

So unless my neighbor can somehow find one of those extremely low-priced tickets, he can never be satisfied with his purchase. We spent another hour or so searching that evening before I told him I had to quit. And I did. I was exhausted.

I am sure that J. Monque’D. will get to Italy as planned this summer. He’s made long trips there every other year for over a decade and handles the language fluently. Once there he’ll have no trouble making his own way wherever he wants to go in Europe. Bluesmen like him are more appreciated there; they don’t have to work second jobs to make ends meet.

But between now and then, we’ll be searching for the jackpot – that ticket priced low enough that he can let himself go ahead and buy it without too much worry about whether he’ll run into someone else who found one much cheaper.

And when he comes back, it’ll almost be comforting to hear the old "RAP-RAPPA-RAP-RAP, RAP-RAP; Ding Dong," again. Maybe. I’ll keep you posted.