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Best time to buy airline tickets and more

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg answers questions on when to buy airline tickets, best frequent-flier mile programs and more.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

In this week's column, Peter Greenberg answers questions from TODAYshow.com users. He's always on the lookout for great ideas, questions and also welcomes your feedback. So, keep in touch. You can send in questions using the form at the end of this column.

Buying airline tickets

Question:
I am flying to Rome in mid-September and want to know if I should wait until after Memorial Day to purchase tickets on the chance that prices will be lower. Please give me some sound advice. Thanks, Ann.

Answer:
Dear Ann,

What you're looking for is the golden window of ticket prices. Most airline fares are not discounted further out than 60 days, so I’d recommend waiting until about 60 days before your flight date for international fares, about 40-45 days for domestic tickets. So, in your case, the end of July might be the best time for you to look. You should also keep in mind that in the recent past, airfare wars for mid-September flights usually started around August 20.

One-way vs. roundtrip fares

Question:
I've often heard you comment on roundtrip fares being lower than one-way fares. I noticed this on a British Airways LAX-LHR flight in March 2008 that I want to book. It's about $1800+ one-way in premium economy and $1600+ for roundtrip, same class.

My question is, is there some kind of punitive action the airlines can currently take if you buy a roundtrip ticket and use only the outbound leg? I’ve heard talk of penalties. Thanks so much! Paul.

Answer:
Dear Paul,

If you buy a six-pack of Diet Coke and only drink three of them, do the Coca-Cola police come and throw you in Coca-Cola prison? Hardly. If you can get a roundtrip ticket for less than a one-way ticket and choose not to use the return portion, it's clearly not violating anything. You're just beating the airlines at their own game while still playing by their (often silly) rules and fare structures!

However, and this is important, this theory only applies to using the first half of your ticket and not the return portion. If, for whatever reason, you chose not to use your outbound ticket and tried to use only the return, you’d be out of luck. If you do not use the outbound portion, your entire reservation will be canceled.

Frequent-flier mile program

Question:
I have had a credit card with Bank of America for about 10 years because of the frequent-flier miles. It seems that over the last few years the airlines have become more and more restrictive about using these miles. Are all frequent-flier programs about the same, or are some better than others? Sincerely, Steve.

Answer:
Dear Steve,

The sad but true fact is that nearly all frequent-flier programs seem to be making it more and more difficult to redeem miles for flights. And in some cases, frequent-flier programs are the most profitable divisions of the airlines. These airlines make lots of money by selling gazillions of miles to their marketing partners (banks, credit-card companies, florists, restaurants); you then receive an average of one mile for every dollar spent with those partners. But since the airlines also control the redemption levels of those miles, they might as well be printing money. As a general rule, I look to redeem miles on partner airlines around 330 days out — using (when necessary) secondary airports or unusual routings in order to get those miles redeemed for destinations I desire.

Exit-row seats on American Airlines

Question:
Please help me! Every time I request an exit row with AA they explain that they are not assigned before the day of the flight. Then I get to the AA counter two full hours early on the day of the flight and they say "There are none available" or "Only a center seat." Then I get on the plane and see four kids and a senior citizen sitting in the exit rows — and they checked in an hour after I did? What is the deal and how do I get exit row seats on a consistent basis?

Answer:
It's true that most airlines do not assign exit row seats until the day of the flight. But what isn't true is that you’d find children sitting in those seats: It's against federal air rules for children under 12 to sit in an exit row. Most airlines also don't — as a matter of policy — allow senior citizens to sit in exit row seats for another reason: People have to be physically able to open those window exits in the event of an emergency. Some airlines will override the "day of departure" rule for assigning exit row seats to members of their elite frequent-flier programs. But I have a question for you: I've always wondered what is the real attraction of exit row seats. Most don't recline. Instead, let me suggest you log on to seatguru.com, which gives you the configurations of most aircraft by airline, and look for even better coach seats that won't be held until departure. For example, on American 757s, look for seats 10A and 10F — they are window seats in coach, but because there are no 9A and 9F seats on those planes, you get a window seat with the best legroom on the plane. Plus, when you need to get up from your seat, you're not climbing over your seatmates. Instead, you’re walking forward!

Flexible international airfares
Question:
I need to go to from either ABQ or DEN to Cozumel, Mexico, for approximately two weeks some time between the end of May and the beginning of August. Most of the search engines either offer no flexibility search or limit that search to the U.S. and Canada. Is there anything with a highly flexible search for international? I will fly when it is the least expensive. I don’t want to have to plug in every possible combination. What can you point me to? Lynne

Answer:Dear Lynne,

Your best option may be Travelocity's international-oriented sister site, Zuji.com. However, it's probably best to use Zuji just to do a flexible search, and then book on Travelocity with the specific dates you've found. For one thing, the booking fees are a lot lower. But Zuji does allow for a large amount of fare flexibility when it comes to international fares. Orbitz, despite indicating that its flexible engine only works for Canadian and U.S. travel, actually does offer choices for Mexican destinations, too. With this search, choose "Flexible Dates" below the main search box. Go with Option 3, and indicate how long you'd like your trip to be and between which dates. Unfortunately, you can only search a max of 30-day periods. But even with your incredibly flexible dates, this should only take two or three searches instead of 60 or so.

You can also use Kayak.com's Buzz feature to get a good idea of what other people are paying for airfares. However, your goal should be to beat whatever fares you find here, since your flexibility should result in lower fares.And as a final note, you'll probably save $100-$200 if you can fly from the better-connected Denver airport instead of Albuquerque. Also, Cancun fares are usually slightly cheaper than Cozumel fares, but the difference here is much smaller.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .