7 tips to land cheap airfares
Prices are rising as competition dwindles among carriers, but travelers can still find a few bargains.
This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.
In March, the Federal Aviation Administration gave Southwest Airlines permission to operate as a single carrier with AirTran, which it acquired last year. That was the same month United and Continental completed their merger. Now American and US Airways could be next. Even though American says it will emerge from bankruptcy as an independent airline, some experts remain skeptical it can ignore overtures from US Airways. (Post continues below.)
"Either American is going to merge or it's going to go out of business," says George Hobica, the founder of fare-tracking site Airfarewatchdog.com.
Airline mergers tend not to end with passengers dancing in the aisles, history shows. In fact, a March FAA report pointed to industry consolidation as a key cause of higher fares -- one only exacerbated by crowded planes, shrinking capacity and higher fuel prices. "It's a perfect recipe for high prices," says Rick Seaney, the chief executive of Farecompare.com. Airfares rose 17% in 2011, and prices are already up 4% this year, according to the site.
That's not to say there won't be deals going forward. "Some routes are still cheap, cheap, cheap," Hobica says. Travelers will just have to be more creative about spotting and booking deals, and they may have to reassess what constitutes a bargain price. A cheap trip to Europe these days, for example, is more often $800 -- four times the $200 sales that were possible just a few years ago, he says.
With the shifting industry in mind, travelers can employ a handful of tactics to make sure they're getting the best price:
Time booking. Studies show that the cheapest time to book airfare is on a Tuesday afternoon, when the maximum number of sale seats are available. Seaney says travelers can expect to find the best fares about three months out from departure for domestic flights and five months out for international flights. "Prices go up dramatically 14 days out," he says.
Consider an airline card. If your local airport is down to just one or two carriers, it might be time to reconsider applying for an airline-branded credit card. "The airline cards are finding that they need to compete with bank offerings, and that helps consumers," says Jay Sorensen, the president of IdeaWorks, a research firm that studies the frequent-flier space. New-cardholder bonuses have risen to an average 60,000 miles, and airlines are loading them up with ongoing perks like free checked bags and priority boarding. But most still carry a fee after the first year, which means they aren't ideal for infrequent travelers or those who occasionally carry a balance.
Set fare alerts. More airlines and travel sites offer best-price guarantees that give consumers cash back if a fare price drops after they book. Sign up for general sale and route-specific alerts at sites like Airfarewatchdog and Bing Travel.
Follow the fare sales. Although fares are rising, competition on many routes hasn't ebbed, Hobica says. Airfare comparison sites including FareCompare.com, Google and Kayak.com are using "getaway maps" to point travelers to destinations that have the best fares from a home airport. Users can narrow the field by budget, amenities (golf versus beaches) and flight duration. Such tools can also be useful in picking alternate airports for a planned trip, he says.
Be flexible. "Flexibility was important, and it's doubly so now," Seaney says. Traveling on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday usually results in a cheaper fare than on other days of the week. Plenty of travel sites offer a flexible-date engine to find the cheapest combination of travel dates. Check a few -- some don't include low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. Opting for a flight with one or more stops can also shave hundreds from a fare without adding more than an hour or two to your flight time, he says.
Buy a package. Hotel-airfare combos are often cheaper than buying each component separately, experts say. Travelocity and Expedia both claim the deals offer discounts of up to $525. It's not a perfect solution, however -- not every flight and hotel option qualifies for a discount.
Watch the fees. U.S. Department of Transportation regulations require airlines to include taxes and fees in advertised fares, but be sure to also factor in expensive extras like checked bags and seat selection (.pdf file). "The airlines have not fully exhausted their ability to charge for extra services," warns Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. Earlier this month, Allegiant added a fee of $10 to $30 for carry-on bags. Spirit introduced a similar fee in 2010, and carry-on bags are one revenue source more airlines could soon tap, he says.
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