More and more frequent travelers are booking their airfares online, but it pays to shop around and know some tricks to finding the best deals. Your best approach will likely depend on how flexible your travel plans are, but regardless of your situation, there are a variety of ways to save money.
I know my travel plans well in advance.
I know my travel plans well in advance.
You're in a good position to get a great fare. Here are tactics to help you do it:
Purchase early — Airlines tend to offer the lowest prices on 21-day advance tickets. However, advance purchase fares can often be secured in as little as 14 or 7 days ahead of your departure date. If you wait until fewer than 7 days, you're unlikely to find a good deal.
Not too early — If you are trying to book months in advance and you can't find the fare you want, be patient. Airfares fluctuate, and a lower fare may come up at a later date. Keep a lookout for announced airfare sales. Of course, fares may go up. Your best defense is to compare fares to get an idea of an average price for your desired trip and check several sites over a period of time to see what's happening with rates. Then you'll recognize a good deal when you see it.
Compare fares — Search multiple travel sites for deals. You can speed this process with a comparison-shopping engine, which allows you to sample several airline and agency sites simultaneously.
• The leading player is Sidestep. but its free software must be downloaded, and will subsequently pop up any time you run a travel-related search. No download is required for Qixo. which allows users to book as well as search for fares, or for Farechase. which has launched a sharp, new comparison shopping engine called the Farechaser.
If you don't have to limit your search by date, BestFares.com 's speedy Farefinder technology produces a broad snapshot of available deals, though many are available only to subscribers, who pay $60 a year.
• None of these tools is comprehensive. A few airlines and travel sites block them. Nor are the comparisons flawless (some fares are missed; some include taxes and charges while others do not). But they can save you time.
• If you prefer doing your own site-by-site search, you may want to start with Orbitz. It serves up a regular portion of Web-only fares, especially from the five airlines that founded the site: United. American. Northwest. Delta and Continental. It does not include listings from major no-frills player Southwest. though.
• Industry leaders Expedia and Travelocity have the clout to negotiate attractive discounts, and offer a regular stream of exclusive discounts alongside the airlines' published fares.
•CheapTickets.com and OneTravel.com are smaller players that may have lower fares on some routes.
Discount airlines such as Southwest. American Trans Air or JetBlue often offer lower prices than their big-name competitors, and are not always listed on major travel sites. It may be worth your while to check their Web sites individually. But keep in mind that the networks for these airlines tend to be smaller than the bigger airlines, so they might not serve either your destination or departure city.
Read the news — Sites that that provide news of airfare deals include USATODAY.com (in partnership with SmarterLiving.com), Bestfares.com. WebFlyer (another USATODAY.com partner) and Travelzoo.com. These sites provide links or phone numbers to book these deals directly from the airlines or e-travel agents providing them.
Sign up for fare alerts — Many airline sites, as well as Orbitz and agents such as Expedia and Travelocity (USATODAY.com's booking partner) allow you to sign up to be notified about deals on specific routes.
Alternative airports — Consider flying to an alternative airport that may be a 30-45 minute drive or train ride from your preferred airport. For example, flying into Baltimore instead of Washington, D.C. or into Oakland instead of San Francisco can save you up to 50% on flights. See if your destination has a similar alternative. Some of the fare comparison sites, such as BestFares.com, will search for alternative airports automatically.
Saturday stay — If you have the flexibility, consider including a Saturday stay. Although some airlines are doing away with this practice, most tend to reserve the lowest fares for itineraries that include a Saturday night stay. Savings can easily be 50%.
Flexible times — If you can't change your dates, consider changing your flight times. Most travel sites have an "anytime" option for your preferred flight times, and that might turn up cheaper flights at less popular times of the day. Or, you might consider alternative sites such as Priceline.com or Hotwire.com.
Auction or discount sites — If you've got a little wiggle room on when you need to be there, and don't mind dabbling in a bit of the unknown, consider using an airline auction or discount site. Priceline.com and Hotwire.com offer airline tickets at deeply discounted prices, with a couple of catches. You can't select your flight times and you won't know your airline until after you buy your ticket. Here's how they work:
•Hotwire.com allows you to enter your destination and travel dates. Hotwire then returns the best fare it finds for that route. You have an hour to accept the price and buy the ticket or the deal will expire and you'll have to wait another 48 hours before you can make the same request. If you purchase a ticket from Hotwire, you will be flying on one of nine major
airlines: Aloha, American West, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Northwest, United and US Airways. Hotwire offers additional airline partners — all major carriers — for international flights.
•Priceline.com works a bit differently. You tell Priceline when and where you want to go, and what price you are willing to pay. Usually within 15 minutes, it will tell you whether an airline has accepted your price. But beware: if your price is accepted your credit card will automatically be charged. Like Hotwire, Priceline guarantees your ticket will be on a major U.S. carrier. Its network consists of seven airlines: America West, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways.
• A savvy bidder may find an offer on Hotwire, then bid lower on Priceline. If the Priceline bid is rejected, then there's still time to return to Hotwire within the hour to accept the price there.Take note: Tickets purchased on Priceline and Hotwire are not changeable or refundable. If your travel plans change, your ticket cannot be amended — not even for a fee. And, in almost all cases, flying standby is not permitted. You will not earn frequent flyer miles for flights booked on these sites.
My travel dates are set — and soon
Airlines are delighted to serve you if you have to travel on a fixed date in the next seven days. That's because they figure you're a business traveler who will pay full fare, even if that means shelling out twice as much as a seatmate with a more flexible schedule. You can't beat the system every time, but some of the tactics that leisure travelers use to find discounts can increase your odds of landing a reasonable fare. Here are the most useful ones:
Alternative airports — Consider flying to an alternative airport that may be a 30-45 minute drive or train ride from your preferred airport. For example, flying into Baltimore instead of Washington, D.C. or into Oakland instead of San Francisco can save you up to 50% for flights. See if your destination has a similar alternative. Some of the fare comparison sites, such as BestFares.com, will search for alternative airports automatically.
Compare fares — Search several travel sites to see if there are any special promotions or last-minute Web fares to meet your needs. Sites offering comparison-shopping engines can dramatically speed the process, though they may miss some fares and turn up others with unsuitable restrictions.
Saturday stay — If you have flexibility on one of your travel dates, consider including a Saturday stay. Although some airlines are experimenting with doing away with this practice, most tend to reserve the lowest fares for itineraries that include a Saturday night stay. Savings can easily be 50%.
Flexible times — If you can't change your dates, consider changing your flight times. Most travel sites have an "anytime" option for your preferred flight times, and that might turn up cheaper flights at less popular times of the day. Or, you might consider and auction or discount sites such as Priceline.com or Hotwire.com. But beware: you won't know your precise flight time or airline until after you purchase your ticket. For more on how auction sites work, click here.
Help! I want to get out of town now! What are my options?
Typically, last-minute tickets are costly. But, if you're flexible and willing to fly on a whim, you might be able to snag a great price. That's because most airlines deeply discount seats that remain unsold a few days before departure. Don't count on these tickets to get you to that business meeting you have to make, but if you don't mind picking from a list of destinations that varies each week, these web deals offer an inexpensive way to jet off on a spontaneous weekend trip. And there's more than one way to find them.
Airline sites — Generally, airlines issue last-minute Web fares between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, and they're good for travel for that weekend. (Note: American offers its fares for the following weekend, meaning you can plan up to 10 days ahead.) They usually require you to leave on a Saturday and return Monday or Tuesday, but a few airlines offer Friday departures and Sunday returns. If you live in an airport hub city or one that's well served by a particular airline, you may have luck finding the deal you want on that airline's site. If not, you can use other sites to cast a wider net.
Last-minute sites — Orbitz allows you to search for weekend Web fares from several airlines simultaneously. Site59 and LastMinuteTravel.com specialize in packaging last-minute Web fares with hotels and rental cars. (Site59's packages are also available through owner Travelocity. (USATODAY.com's booking partner.) Enter your departure city and see what comes up: available destinations change most weeks.
Last-minute news — Sites where you can track news about last-minute airline deals include USATODAY.com (in partnership with SmarterLiving ); WebFlyer (another USATODAY.com partner); BestFares.com. and TravelZoo.com. Again, you can search by your departure city, but to book you will be handed off to the airline site that you choose.
Auction or discount sites — Another option is to go through an auction or discount site such as Hotwire.com or Priceline.com. If your flight times are flexible, this might be your best bet. There are a couple of catches: You can't select your flight times and — if you decide to buy — you won't know your airline until after you've purchased your ticket. For more on how auction sites work, click here.
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