Landing cheap airfare
Sales are down and fees are up this year. Here are some tips on how to find the best deals.
Travelers hunting for airfare deals have their work cut out for them this year.
With more consumers scheduling vacations and airline scheduling cutbacks, the supply-demand equation has swung back in the airlines' favor, says Tom Parsons, the founder of BestFares.com. Fares are slightly higher across the board -- last year's $49 sale is $69 this year, for example -- with substantial increases on select routes, he says.
Sales are still out there, but on many, either the deals aren't as favorable or there are more restrictions on eligible days. "This summer, you're just going to have to poke around," he says.
Part of the equation: fees, which have continued creeping up. Fee revenue totaled $7.8 billion during 2009, up 40% from $5.5 billion in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Airlines have had a tough time bringing their base fares up," says Rick Seaney, chief executive of fare-tracking site FareCompare.com. Price-conscious consumers will forgo flying with higher fares, so airlines look to fees to offset costs and generate profits.
And there are new fees all the time. In late June, American Airlines introduced a series of upgrade fees called Your Choice. For $9 or more each way, for example, the "boarding and flexibility package" offers boarding in the first group of general passengers, free standby option for an earlier flight and a $75 discount on the regular $150 fee to change your itinerary. JetBlue began selling $6 snack boxes on its long-haul routes (it still offers free snacks on every flight).
Still, travelers looking for a bargain can employ several strategies to cut costs:
Compare more than fares. "There are sites that boast special fares ... and then when you finally get to the page where it's time to click and buy it, the fees have whacked out the savings," says Stephanie Abrams, the founder of Travelers411.com. Compare fees among airlines with the cheapest fares for a fuller picture of the total cost.
Shop on Tuesday. The maximum number of cheap seats for a given domestic route are on the market at 3 p.m. Eastern on Tuesdays, Seaney says. (The first fare sales show up Monday evening, and competing airlines on those routes have matched them by the next afternoon.) Available sale seats dwindle until Thursday night, when airlines end sales still in the system. Buying during that window of opportunity can yield savings of 10% to 40%.
Watch for coupon codes. When the U.S. won its third game in the World Cup, Lufthansa offered each of its e-mail list subscribers a single-use code good for an $80 discount on travel through Dec. 31 booked by Aug. 11. Airlines have been offering more exclusive codes and discounts like that, but you have to be on the e-mail lists to take advantage, says George Hobica, the founder of deal-tracking site AirfareWatchdog.com. (To avoid reading each one, sign up for free fare alerts from sites such as FareCompare, AirfareWatchdog or Bing, and then hunt through your trash folder for the relevant e-mail.)
Travel during slow days -- ideally, a Tuesday or a Wednesday, Seaney says. Airlines tack on smaller peak travel surcharges for those days, if they charge them at all. The fare difference for that leg of the trip could be as much as $20.
Shop early. Airlines are capricious when it comes to last-minute deals, Abrams says. Sometimes there's a fare sale, but more often than not the deals disappear. For inflexible travel plans, book at least 14 days in advance, but ideally closer to three months out.
Price compare for one passenger. Airlines have roughly 10 different price points per flight, and travelers searching for more passengers than there are cheap seats will be charged the higher rate for all, Seaney says. Start your fare search by checking prices for one passenger, and then see how those rates change for the full party. Split the reservations to get however many of the cheaper fares are available.
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