Yes, airfares keep going up, and airlines keep finding new ways to take money out of our wallets. But you can save a lot by consistently using these tips and doing your homework before you fly.
▪ Look for introductory fares. Whenever I hear that an airline is newly launching service from an airport or to a new destination, a bell goes off in my head. That bell dings, “Cheap introductory fares.” Airlines often want to drum up excitement about their new destination by offering deep discounts the first week or few weeks.
▪ Travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Those are usually the cheapest days, with lowest demand. Sometimes Thursdays can be cheap as well. Try to avoid Fridays, Sundays or Monday mornings – that’s when most business travelers fly and you risk getting bumped. Unless you want to. I met a guy once at LAX who bought plane tickets to high-demand cities scheduled for Monday mornings, and then always volunteered to get bumped. He told me he made money that way, though he refused to give me details.
▪ Erase your browsing history. Before you buy a ticket online, either use a different browser or go into your tools menu to erase your browser history and remove cookies. This prevents the airline or agency from knowing that you already searched – and from thereby raising the price.
▪ Devote some time to searching. Look at kayak.com, orbitz.com and the sites of budget airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue and WestJet before you decide. Putting time into research can pay off. Sometimes you’re surprised, like when I planned to take my kids to Egypt on Delta, which just showed regular airfares. When I went onto Orbitz, though, my daughter’s airfare was 25 percent cheaper. Why? Because she was entitled to a child discount, which Orbitz factored in but Delta didn’t, even though it was their own discount program. And note that numerous airlines offer child rates of 25 percent to 50 percent off on international flights. Look for them.
▪ Think ahead. Where are the places that you dream of going? Think you can’t afford it? Sign up for cheap airfare email alerts from airfarewatchdog.com. I asked the site to alert me to any extra-cheap fares from my favorite airports to destinations that I want to visit.
▪ Look around for local airlines. If you’re traveling abroad, seek airlines that don’t show up on third-party sites like Orbitz or Travelocity. Star Perum got me from Lima to Machu Picchu for only $80 round trip – a fraction of the regular price. I got that bargain because I bought far in advance. Out of curiosity I checked the fare for the same flight just before we left. It had risen to $240. For Europe, check Ryanair.
▪ Look for fare calendars. Most budget airlines have some kind of monthly fare calendar that will show you at a glance which are the cheapest days to fly. I love this. You may have to search around a bit on their websites to find it.
▪ The fare that looks cheapest on first glance isn’t always the best. Airlines are adding hidden fees to the price of your ticket, including checked bags, carry-on bags, assigned seats and more. Don’t rule out those bargain airlines, just make sure they’re really the best deal. And if you’re buying on their website, look for tricky little boxes or other ways that they’re adding costs as you go through the purchase process. You may have to uncheck a box to remove a fee for having an assigned seat, for example. Unless you want one.
▪ Ask the locals. If you’re interested in going somewhere with a local ethnic population nearby, it’s worth stopping in to talk to the agents at those little mom-and-pop travel agencies. If you want to go to Guatemala, for example, and you see a sign that says “Viajes a Guatemala,” it’s worth stopping in to see what they can do to help you find a rock-bottom fare. Those agents can also tell you the cheapest time to fly and how to avoid pitfalls.
▪ Check for off-price airports. In Chicago, most travelers fly in and out of O’Hare International Airport. But what about Midway International Airport? I know, many of you never heard of it. But that might be costing you money, because no-frills carriers often fly in and out of regional airports, where the costs are lower. Make sure you’re searching all the airports, not just the biggest ones.
▪ Cancel your ticket. Be aware that you can usually cancel your flight purchased online within 24 hours and get a full refund, even if the flight is supposedly nonrefundable. I’ve done this numerous times. Just go to the airline website or wherever you bought the ticket, go into your account using your confirmation number, and look for a “cancel” button. I say “usually” though, because I have heard of some situations where tickets haven’t been refunded. It’s worth doing, though, if you suddenly realize you can’t go that date after all. Or you find some killer airfare that wasn’t available before.
▪ Sign up for airline sale alerts. Pick your favorite airlines that you fly the most often, join their frequent flier clubs and sign up for fare alerts. That way, when they have a fare sale, or they open up bookings for a new time period, they’ll shoot you an email to let you know. This can mean significant savings. For example, Southwest has only a few heavily discounted fares on each plane. By being notified when a new booking period opens up, you can get on their website and snatch the cheapest seats before anyone else can.
▪ Be aware of holidays and high traffic times. Yeah, we all know it costs a lot to fly at Christmas, but there are lesser holidays during the year that will also jack up prices, as well as local events like the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas that sells out the entire town. Work around those.
▪ Try FLYR. This is a flight search tool that tries to predict when the lowest fares will be available. It will suggest that you should buy or wait. It also will guarantee certain airline rates for you, if you pay a few bucks. I’ve browsed this site (getflyr.com) and had it recommended to me, but have never relied on it myself.
Marla Jo Fisher: email@example.com