Get the lowdown on how airlines sometimes like to keep their best fares on the down-low.

Fees and surcharges aren't the only details the airlines like to keep discreetly under wraps and spring on you when you least suspect it, perhaps at the very last minute when you have no choice but to pay up or get out. Sometimes they will also keep some great bargains hidden for you to stumble on more or less by chance, although the rationale for doing this is less clear. If you've got a great deal, why not tell it to the world?

Ironically, most marketing efforts seem to be spent trying to convince you that a sale is truly an amazing buy when in many cases it actually isn't (even when they're not down-right rip-offs, you can almost always find a better deal out there if you're a little flexible), whereas the genuine steals often just languish unpublished, unadvertised and unnoticed until someone happens to come along and unearth them.

As we have told you before, this has been the case for well over a month with United fares to a number of destinations, most notably London. Every search engine, including United's own, will initially show you the official published rate, while the actual price won't appear until the final step of the purchase process, often coming in at $100 less. A nice surprise for sure, although obviously not just a temporary system fluke, but a maddening and seemingly deliberate ruse even if it is to your advantage for once, at least when you know about it.

On some routes, the price drop simply brings United's fares in line with the competition, although why they would want to scare off potential customers with a higher initial price is a mystery; but in some cases, as the San Francisco to London price sample below shows, United's fare in fact goes from $35 above the going rate to $70 below!

Another example is the promotional sale for United's new nonstop Washington to Moscow route, which lists a special introductory fare of $369 each way before taxes. At first blush this comes to $879 round-trip with taxes, only to drop to $813 in the end for enough unexpected savings to make anyone blush. Even better, because the sale period doesn't actually start until April 3, almost a week after the official launch date of March 29, fares for those first days of service are actually $200 less, bringing the total down to $679 at first, then finally just $613. But don't look for anyone else, least of all the airlines, to tell you this: that is what we're here for!

So what is the lesson in all this? First of all, it's a reminder that bargain-hunting is a tedious, time-consuming process that only occasionally pays off, but can sometimes pay off big. As perhaps the only Internet travel site with a stated mission to help you find the best fares even when we don't stand to profit from it, while most other sites will try to steer you to the vendor that pays them most or simply miss the bargains that only human intelligence, not computers, can find, we work hard to track down these deals and tell you about them.

But unfortunately we cannot be everywhere all the time--we are, after all, only human--so for those times when you have to do the work yourself and since buying airline tickets online is already a multi-step process, do yourself the favor of always clicking through to the final details page to see the actual price. That one small extra step for your mouse can turn into one giant heap of savings for your wallet...

The prevailing price for nonstop fares on the San Francisco to London route is $630, with United coming in at $36 more...

... but if that little "Web Fare" flag on Orbitz tempts you to investigate further, you will be rewarded with a United fare that's over $100 lower than advertised and almost $70 cheaper than the competition. Now that is great news, indeed!

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