The Points & Miles Backpacker: Changing the Point of Sale to Find Cheaper Airfare
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We’ve covered many tips for finding cheap airfare, but a less-known and less common trick involves variations on foreign airfares based on where the ticket is sold, or its “point of sale.” The point of sale does not have to correspond to your country of residency or even where you are physically located when you purchase the ticket. In the past, some of these fares were reserved for residents of the country where the travel is taking place, but these residency restrictions have lifted.
Changing the Point of Sale
When booking an airline ticket online, the Point of Sale (POS) is usually determined by the country the website detects you are in when booking. Sometimes, the landing page asks you to pick a country, and sometimes it selects for you, but you can usually see it at the top of the page.
Using the US version of the LATAM’s site, I priced out a Chilean domestic one way flight for a random date next February. These were my fare options:
A one-way flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas on February 6 was $98. But look at what happened when I priced the same itinerary on the Chilean version of the website. To switch, I returned to the home page and changed the country from “United States” to “Chile.”
Then I searched the same routing and selected the same flight on the same date. Look at my options now.
Right off the bat, you notice there is another fare option, “Promo,” which is cheaper than the other fares. The price is in Chilean pesos. In USD, this equals $42.27 — less than half the price of the US site! Even the other fares cost roughly half of their equivalent class on the US site. (Note that the use of commas and decimals in numbers in South America is reversed, so “$28.064” is actually 28,064 Chilean pesos.)
Unfortunately, you’ll have to navigate the booking in Spanish, but you can use the US site on a different browser and follow along step by step using the English version as a translation. Google Translate can help as well.
In Chile, this method only works for domestic flights. International flights price similarly whether you use the US or Chilean sites.
Interestingly, however, the opposite of the above POS trick seems to be true when flying from Santiago to Easter Island. LATAM holds a monopoly on this destination, so getting there isn’t cheap and LATAM partner awards are almost impossible. When I priced out a flight from Santiago to the island on the Chilean site, only “Flex” fares were offered, and the round trip totaled the equivalent of US $1,010.
Yet when I priced out the same itinerary on the US site, I was offered cheaper fare classes for some dates, and I found the exact itinerary above for US $692.
This routing seems to be the exception though. LATAM prices Easter Island curiously, including sometimes pricing business class tickets similar to, or less than, economy tickets.
Residency Restrictions Lifted
The method above for LATAM flights within Chile has worked for many years, but cheaper domestic flights within Peru and Argentina used to be reserved for residents of their respective country. The booking process warned that the fare was only for residents. If a non-resident booked the fare, they often got asked at the airport to produce proof of residency, and if they could not, they would be charged the difference in fare or a significant penalty.
Thankfully, as low-fare airlines have lifted those residency conditions, legacy carriers have lifted them as well. The short, domestic flight from Lima, Peru to Cusco used to cost so much that budget backpackers were forced into the 18-hour harrowing bus ride through the mountains. But now, cheap flights are accessible to everyone.
Despite being priced in USD, the above itinerary is from the Peruvian version of LATAM’s website. The same itinerary on the US site starts at $71.
Other South American Airlines
LATAM isn’t the only airline that offers significant savings using a local POS. Avianca sells Colombian domestic flights from Bogota to Cartagena for $101 on the following dates using a US POS.
However, when I switch to the Colombian version of the site, the flights get significantly cheaper (and I can opt to view them in English). 89,890 Colombian Pesos is US $29.59!
This trick commonly works in South America on legacy carriers for domestic flights. If you do plan to fly around these countries a bit, also consider a South American Airpass.
Be warned that Aerolíneas Argentinas hasn’t officially lifted residency requirements. While people on Flyertalk have reported flying on residency fares without issue, the website still contains this notice:
Elsewhere in the World
We’ve pointed out before that Norwegian Air often prices their tickets cheaper through the Norwegian version of the site. I pulled up a fresh example to show it still works. This itinerary costs 2,498 NOK (US $303) on the Norwegian site — significantly cheaper than $359 on the US site.
I’ve noticed a similar trend in other European low-fare carriers such as Ryanair and Wizz Air. Paying in local currency was cheaper than USD, although not quite by the margin above.
Heading south into Africa, when I search a domestic flight on EgyptAir using the default (US) site, these are my fare options:
However, when I change the country to Egypt on the homepage, I’m offered a “Good deal” that I didn’t see on the US site, bringing the cost of this flight down to the equivalent of US $94.
I’ve read that changing the POS works for cheaper flights within China as well. See this post for more comparisons and info on paying in different currencies.
Tips for Booking
- Compare POS using ITA Matrix — You can use ITA Software’s Matrix Airfare Search to easily compare fares from a different POS. The “Sales city” box defaults to the departure city, so it will already show a local POS, but you can change this to quickly compare between points-of-sale from different countries. You can also choose the currency of your results for easy comparison, which won’t affect the POS.
I found though that ITA Matrix doesn’t always show all available fare classes, such as the “Promo” fares from LATAM, even when I used a Chilean POS.
- Compare Local POS and US POS Fares on Airline’s Website — When booking a foreign carrier, price out the itinerary on both the local version and the US version of the website, and book whichever is cheaper. If you run into problems with credit card processing, don’t necessarily give up. I booked my LAN Chile flights before the Chilean website accepted US credit cards, so I had to call via Skype to finish the booking. Make sure you call a reservation number within the country whose POS you are trying to book. Regardless of language, they’ll usually be able to transfer you to English reservations.
- Watch Out for Residency Requirements — Although they are becoming less common, make sure the fare you book does not have a local residency requirement. You’ll be warned in the booking process if there is one.
- Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees — As always, remember to book with a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
Are you looking to back that pack up and get some guidance? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org !
Feature photo courtesy of Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash