If it’s not one thing, it’s another. You think you’ve scored a great airfare to Europe, only to be hit with a fuel surcharge that adds almost a third onto the price. You show up at the airport, packed and ready to go, and discover that second bag you’re checking is going to add an additional $50 round-trip onto the cost of your trip. You’re desperately trying to budget for your big vacation, but every time you research possible airfares, the price has crept up, once again.
While there’s no way to avoid the fuel surcharge, and baggage charges on certain airlines can only be avoided by packing light (a good lesson for us all), airfares are slippery devils that can (sometimes) be tamed. The following tried-and-true methods should help you snag a decent — or possibly free — airfare, a ticket so low in price that — hopefully — those invidious extra charges won’t hurt so much.
As creatures of habit, most of us tend to use the same travel sites over and over again. Problem is, there’s no one travel Web site that always provides the best airfare. Just because you once found a terrific fare to London on, say, Expedia, doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be undercut by Travelocity the next time. Or that the fares being sold directly on the sites of American Airlines, Delta, British Airways or what have you, might not offer the best value of all.
But searching multiple sites is not only time-consuming, it’s tedious. The solution? Surf to an “aggregator” site. These are Internet services that don’t sell travel. Instead, they simply “Google” airfares and other types of travel products, scanning all the prices offered by the individual airlines, as well as those from Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Opodo, Ebookers, Hotwire and the like. This results in a deeper and more impartial search. If you end up buying an airfare through one of the aggregators, you don’t pay a booking fee (as you will with the “Big Three”); instead, the site you purchased from pays a small finder's fee to the aggregator site.
Among the many aggregator sites in business, I’ve had the best luck with Sidestep.com and its new owner, Kayak.com, as well as Mobissimo.com and Momondo.com. You’ll see why in the following searches I did recently. The savings range from piddling to impressive, but you’ll note that the aggregator always wins (and no, I didn’t cherry-pick these results):
*Chicago to Rome, Italy round-trip in mid-April
Orbitz price: $855, Sidestep price: $761. Savings: $94
*Cleveland to Houston, round-trip in late May
Travelocity price: $235, Kayak price: $230. Savings: $5
*Minneapolis to Cancun, round-trip in late March
Expedia price: $358, Sidestep price: $345. Savings: $10
*Las Vegas to Honolulu, round-trip in late June
Orbitz price: $492, Mobissimo price (found at Orbitz) $490. Savings: $2
*New York to Hong Kong, round-trip late August
Expedia price: $1,174, Mobissimo price $1,022. Savings: $152
Pretty interesting, huh? The point here is: You generally won’t miss out on a special being offered by the “Big Three” by searching in this fashion. If the price Orbitz, Expedia or Travelocity is offering is the best one, it will usually pop up on the aggregator sites, too.
Book at the right time
It’s no secret that there are seasons in travel, and that going to a destination at a time of year when no one else is going (October for the Caribbean, February for Europe, July for Australia, for example) is a sure way to save money. There are also often less expensive days to fly during the month; all of the Web sites mentioned above offer their users handy-dandy calendars to identify those dates.
But booking travel at the right time can also yield savings. When you book too far in advance, say 10 months before you plan to travel, the airlines know that you really want to travel at that time, and are unlikely to offer any discounts. The same with traveling at the very last minute: Most people who do book in the week or two before their departure have to travel…and so the crafty carriers take ’em for all they can.
Smartest time to purchase is between 24 days and two months of your departure. It’s during this period that the airlines are doing some soul searching ... or at least yield management. You see, airfares are based on supply and demand (and, increasingly, fuel costs). If the demand is low on a certain set of flights, the airline execs don’t really start to panic until about six weeks in advance of those flights, and that’s when they throw a sale. Book too early or too late, and you won’t see ’em sweat.
Conversely, weekends are often the worst days of the week to book because a) you’re less likely to hit a new sale (the execs are home watering their lawns) and b) most Americans are off work on the weekend and therefore wait to book their travel until then. The airlines are aware of this pattern, and so prices can rise slightly on weekends.
One word on holiday fares: Throw all rules out the window for these. Fares are rarely discounted around Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, and planes can sell out. For these periods, I recommend booking at least two and a half months in advance, to guarantee you get a seat. If low prices are a priority, book on the holiday itself. You may miss the turkey or the carols, but you’ll pay much less than those who flew in a comfortable day or two before the big event.
Don’t forget frequent-flier miles
I know, I know: Redeeming those “magic miles” can be an exercise in frustration. Ten times as many travelers as a decade ago are competing for a dwindling number of seats. (The airlines have always set aside roughly 11 percent of their inventory for award mileage members. However, most airlines are flying fewer and smaller planes today, in an attempt to maximize profits.) But when you do snag a mileage seat, that bit of good fortune can make the difference between being able to afford that vacation and not.
The keys to using your frequent-flier miles are flexibility and persistence. For most airlines, award mileage seats open up to booking 330 days in advance of departure. If you can, try to go online then to snag a seat. But don’t take a “no” as definitive. Yield management dictates when frequent-flier seats are released, and you may find that a “no” in April has transformed into a “yes” in May.
This is particularly true if you can be flexible about the dates you fly, and the airports you’re flying into. As I said before, flexibility is the secret to getting the most use from your miles.
Believe it or not, you can also be flexible in your choice of airlines; your reward miles won’t only work with the carrier you’re most loyal to, but also with their code-share partners. So if your miles are all with American Airlines, they will also work on Aer Lingus, Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN Airlines, Japan Airlines, Qantas, Iberia and several others. If you’re with Delta, you can use Alaska Airlines, Avianca, China Airlines and Royal Air Maroc. People on the United program should look as well at US Airways, Air Canada, Air China, Lufthansa, SAS, bmi, THAI and a number of other carriers. Because the airlines don’t post the inventory from their partners online, book the old-fashioned way. Pick up a phone to call the reservations center and make it clear that you want to get the lay of the land, not just for the airline you’re calling, but also for its partners. Booking by phone will add about $25 to the cost of your ticket, but you’ll increase your chances of actually finding a flight by a good 30 percent.
Finally, the only way to use frequent-flier miles is to accumulate enough of them. So it’s a good idea to be loyal to one airline when you can and to work the system to build up a large stockpile of miles. This might include getting miles through a credit card, staying at hotels that offer air miles, buying groceries through stores that give miles (yup, you can actually do that), ordering flowers, getting magazine subscriptions ... you name it. There are few activities in the inventory of American behavior today that don’t seem to have a mileage value attached! One warning about those mileage credit cards: They often come with significantly higher user fees attached. So if you’re the type of person who has difficulty paying bills on time, these cards may end up being downright dangerous.
However you get there, remember that in this case, it’s the destination and NOT the journey that’s important. Flying is only a means to an end, and that end is a worthy one: Experiencing the world.
Pauline Frommer is a travel expert and creator of the new Pauline Frommer guidebooks ( ), geared towards adult budget travelers.