Fly the Friendly Web

Here’s how five major airlines fly online.

The online travel-agency sites offer lots of neat features. But when you’re getting ready to book a flight, be sure to visit the airlines’ sites too. Not only do many of them serve up special deals, but they also offer online customers bonuses for booking over the Web. Here’s how five major airlines fly online.

Airline Southwest
View from 25,000 feet This simple, intuitive site is designed to look like a reservation desk. It’s so easy to use that other Web companies view it as a model of a good interface. An online buyer’s club for American Airlines frequent fliers. Find out how many miles you have — and how you can get the most out of them. American also offers deals on hotel rooms and car rentals. Everything you want to know about flying with United — from what services are available for kids traveling alone to what your in-flight movie will be. More an info site than an e-commerce hub. A broad-based site. Not only can you reserve a flight or find out its status, but you can also book a hotel, rent a car, read tips on how to entertain a child, and find out if you’ll need a visa for your destination. All the basics: reservations, bookings, a tool for checking frequent-flier points. A tutorial offers a good initiation to those who are new to booking online, and there’s also a useful help desk.
Frequent-clicker reward Buy a ticketless, round-trip fare, and get double credit in “Rapid Rewards.” For booking online, you get 1,000 bonus miles in the AAdvantage program. You get 1,000 bonus miles for buying a round-trip ticket online. In most cases, booking a ticket online gets you 1,000 bonus miles. You can earn up to 1,000 bonus miles for booking online.
Online only Sign up for the Click ‘n Save email service, and you’ll get a message every Tuesday about Net-only fares. There’s usually at least one low-fare flight originating from each of the 54 airports that Southwest serves. Typical fare: Houston to San Francisco for $196, round-trip. Enter your originating airport and up to 10 favorite destinations, and whenever you return to the site, you’ll be alerted to relevant sales. The site will also track deals for specific types of destinations, such as “beach” or European. Sign up for the Net SAAver emails to tap into cheap, this-weekend-only specials. United’s domestic E-Fares email goes out every Tuesday. Fares apply to flights that depart the following Saturday and that return the next Monday or Tuesday. Typical fare: San Francisco to Houston for $169, round-trip. (United also offers international “E-Fares.”) “Deals this good come along only once every seven days,” crows the email for Continental’s CO.O.L. Travel Specials. The email goes out every Tuesday and offers deals on flights that weekend. These specials typically originate from or go to one of Continental’s three hubs: Houston, Newark, or Cleveland. Visit the SkyLinks Web Fare page every Wednesday morning to read about weekly specials. You can also get that information emailed to you: It comes in a format that’s tailored to departure cities that you specify.
Turbulence What makes the site so easy to use also makes it somewhat primitive. For example, you can’t check your frequent-flier account balance — or even send email to the airline. Only members of the American frequent-flier program can book tickets on the site — but it’s easy to sign up online, and, when you do, you’ll immediately get access to the entire site. If you want to check out your frequent-flier mileage information on this site, you’ll first have to wait two to four weeks for a personal-identification number to arrive by snail mail. The site’s “travel tips” seem well-meaning, but they border on hokey: “Pack light,” “Allow extra time for parking,” and don’t forget to “Arrive early to check in for your flight.” To book online, you must be a member of Delta’s SkyMiles frequent-flier program — but you can register easily and gain access in just 90 seconds.