Just in time for the holidays, your expert guide to flying for less
- Last Updated: 5:46 PM, November 28, 2011
- Posted: 2:02 PM, November 11, 2011
It used to be all so simple, back when airfares changed so infrequently that airlines actually printed them on their schedules. You’d call your favorite travel agent to find the best deal, pack your bags and jet off. And there were only two kinds of fares: coach and first class. Now, with airfares changing literally by the second and an alphabet soup of different offers, finding the “best” deal is a challenge. This step-by-step guide will get you ready for takeoff.
#1 Sign up Why do all the work hunting down a low airfare yourself when you can have someone else do it for free? Many airfare search and listing sites, such as Tripadvisor, Travelocity, Hotwire, Bing and Airfare Watchdog (which I founded, full disclosure) offer e-mail airfare alerts when prices go down — as they often do.
#2 Follow and ye shall find Alerts alone aren’t going to get you to the best stuff -- many airlines and alert sites not tweet their top offers and finds instead of emailing them. Some of the best sales last for just a few hours, even if they’re good for travel over a long period.
#3 Go to the source Never assume that the airlines aren’t sometimes the best source for sale information. Sign up for email alerts, join their frequent flyer programs.
#4 And also... Increasingly, airlines aren’t sharing their very best fares with third-party sites such as Kayak. For example, there were the recent fares to London from California for $420 round-trip including tax that were only available on Spanish airline Iberia’s Web site (similar fares were twice that elsewhere). So once you’ve found a fare, definitely check airline sites directly.
#5 Watch out for promo codes From time to time, you’ll receive promo codes in your email because you signed up for email from your favorite airlines and online travel agencies. These codes can only be redeemed if you book directly on the airlines’ websites, another way they try to cut out the middleman.
#6 Wait until the last minute (kind of) You’ll often get the best fares if you book at least 7 to 21 days ahead of departure. Otherwise, your best bet is Priceline’s “Name your own price” feature or the similar feature at Hotwire.com. Also take a look at Lastminute.com, which packages last minute airfares with hotel and rental car deals — sometimes for less than what you’d pay for airfare alone.
#7 Get a refund when the fare drops after you buy Several domestic US airlines will give you a full refund, in the form of a voucher good for future travel, if the airfare drops between the time you buy and time you fly — if and only if you fly on the same itinerary. Check with the airline you’re booked on, they all publish this information.
#8 Factor in the fees A low fare on one airline could turn out to be not so low once fees are added on. Airlines are making most of their profits these days not from selling you airfares but with all those fees for baggage and other perks. In addition to checked bag fees (chart) there are even fees for using your frequent flyer miles and for other services such as changing a travel date or bringing a pet on board.
#9 Is there a “magic” hour or day to buy? In a word, no. It’s true that the airlines’ weekend deals come out Monday to Wednesday, and some airlines announce their sales early in the week, but if you limit yourself to searching just on those days, you’ll miss out. A good fare can pop up any moment of the week.
#10 Best days to travel Although a low airfare can appear at any time, one thing’s for certain -- it’s cheaper to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Saturday is also a low-fare day. If traveling internationally, Monday to Wednesday is often the sweet spot.
George Hobica is the founder of Airfare Watchdog (airfarewatchdog.com). For more tips and low fares, follow him on Twitter @airfarewatchdog.