Stretching dollars is mightily important these days, especially when it comes to travel. What follows are 10 tips to point you in the right direction next time you’re looking for an airfare bargain.
1. Look for promo codes.
Airlines are increasingly resorting to promotion codes to bypass online travel agencies and meta search engines, driving traffic to their own sites, which are, after all, valuable properties selling everything from credit cards to hotel rooms. Discounts range from $10 to 50 percent off published fares. Southwest, American, Allegiant, Spirit, Air Canada, JetBlue and Virgin America have all used this strategy. To get the codes, sign up for the airlines’ frequent flyer programs and e-mailed newsletters. These fares are never listed on Travelocity, Kayak and similar sites.
2. Surprising sales sometimes appear on weekends and holidays.
For competitive reasons, airlines sneak in the very best unadvertised sales when they think the competition is watching the big game or taking the kids to the movies rather than monitoring what other airlines are charging. Weekends and holidays are an obvious choice.
3. Search for fares throughout the day, several times a day.
No one can precisely predict where airfares are heading. (Airfare pundits who claim to have a crystal ball should go play the oil futures market and make some real money instead of trying to get their mugs on TV.) Fares go up and down throughout the day — just like the stock market — so if you don’t like what you see at 10 a.m., come back a couple of hours later and search again. Just as important as the fare, seat availability can change throughout the day. Airlines adjust the number of seats available at different fare levels, so even if the fare hasn’t changed, the availability of seats at that fare may fluctuate — so you might see a $120 fare to your destination one minute, but the next it’s twice that. And the exact opposite can happen, too.
4. Use flexible date searches.
Adjusting your dates of travel by just a day or two can save hundreds, especially if you’re buying for more than one person. This is one area where online travel agencies such as Orbitz, Cheapair, Cheaptickets, Hotwire, and Travelocity shine and often have an advantage over most airline sites and meta search engines. Travelocity will show you the lowest published fare (irrespective of seat availability) over a 330-day period on all domestic fares (except those on Southwest, Allegiant and a few niche carriers) and on major international routes; Orbitz and Cheaptickets do the same over a 30-day period of your choosing (on nearly all domestic and international routes, and they do a better job of assuring seat availability than Travelocity does). Look for the “flexible travel” tool on booking sites — and use it.
5. Use Priceline, especially if you don’t have a sufficient advance purchase window.
The cheapest fares often require a seven-, 14-, 21-, or even a 28-day advance purchase. What if you need to leave tomorrow or on short notice? That’s where Priceline’s “Name your own price” bidding process can help. Typically, savings reach 40 to 60 percent — sometimes more. The site has a page showing a daily list of discounts on the top 50 routes, revealing how much other users have saved by bidding on fares. Click on the route and you’ll see actual bids compared to the lowest retail price.
6. Sign up for fare alerts, but don’t blindly rely on ones that monitor price only.
Fare alert services (such as those offered by Farecompare, Yapta, Farecast, Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline and Airfarewatchdog) are valuable tools. Each offers its own advantages and limitations. But many of them alert consumers based on price only. So if the lowest possible fare between New York and London on a Friday is $600 roundtrip but only for winter travel, and on Saturday the lowest fare remains at $600 but is valid for travel all summer, you will not necessarily receive an alert about this “higher value” fare in your e-mail. Same goes for nonstop flights: Many consumers believe that a $200 fare that requires connecting flights is far less valuable than a $200 nonstop — so choose an alert service that allows you to specify nonstops only or alerts you upfront that the flight is nonstop.
7. Search Southwest and Allegiant separately.
These low-cost leaders do not share their lowest fares with third-party Web sites, such as online travel agencies or meta search engines. (They’re also frequent issuers of promo codes, which are redeemable only on their sites.) Southwest doesn’t always have the lowest price, but in many markets they’re the only airline flying a route nonstop, even if just once a day. Plus, Southwest doesn’t pile on fees for services such as checking a bag.
8. Use consolidators for international business- and first-class fares.
With the economic downturn, business- and first-class cabins may be emptier — and sometimes deals are amazing. Consolidators specializing in premium cabins often have great deals, and the airlines themselves are sometimes discounting their premium cabins, so check for specials on their Web sites. Do a Google search for “first class consolidators” to find companies that offer such deals.
9. Check the airlines’sites directly.
We’re not talking here merely about saving the booking fee you might be charged by a site. Several international airlines regularly offer significant savings on various routes, but only if you buy from their sites. Among these are Aer Lingus, China Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air Tahiti Nui and Air Canada. Savings can be as high as $200 roundtrip.
10. Consider the extra fees before you buy.
If Southwest has a fare of $198 roundtrip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest actually has the lowest fare because Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, whereas United would charge you an additional $165 each way for three.
Syndicated travel journalist George Hobica is founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a low-airfare-monitoring site that provides free e-mail alerts.