By Sharyn Alden
Snatching up a good price on airfares is not an easy-breezy exercise. Flights change, price wars erupt, new itineraries open up, and on and on. And the hardest thing is knowing when to quit shopping and start buying.
I know people who shop for airfares like it’s a job. Others are so used to getting good deals they won’t stop searching until they find something that matches the price they paid the last time they flew the route.
Well, guess what? When you put in countless hours and still can’t find what you want, it might be time to just pull the trigger and book something. The closer you get to the date you want to leave, typically the fewer the options.
Another thing to consider: Good deals are good deals, but do you really want to arrive exhausted from having to get up at 2 a.m. to make a 4 a.m. flight? It may make better sense to forego a redeye flight that can crush your energy if you only have a few days on the other end.
Here are nine tips to help you get low fares year-round.
- Buy early. This is especially true if you’re flying during peak travel periods. If you make reservations too late — usually two to three weeks prior to departure — you’ve lost your edge. Recently, I bought a round-trip ticket from Chicago’s O’Hare to Reagan National (Washington, D.C.) for $147. That’s almost half of what it typically runs on this route. I bought this ticket nearly three months in advance, and hit “purchase” fast when I saw this cheap fare – and the next day, when I bragged about the fare I snagged, I saw it had jumped $100 overnight.
- Buy late. This contradicts the buying-early theory, but if airlines haven’t filled their planes (look at their seating maps when you shop) you may get some good last-minute deals. If you’re flexible, try online booking sites like lastminutetravel.com or others that advertise great prices close to departure.
- Throw inflexibility out the window. I’ll go out on a limb and say that no matter where you travel you’ll probably get the cheapest flights when you’re flexible. For example, you may save up to 30 percent if you fly on Thanksgiving and return the Saturday after, versus coming in on Wednesday and going home the Sunday after the holiday. Avoid weekend travel around holidays like the weekends after Christmas and New Year’s Day.
- Shop till you almost drop. Branch out beyond your favorite sites like Orbitz, Expedia or Travelocity and try loss-leader sites like TripAdvisor (under “flights”), Kayak or AirfareWatchdog. Sometimes you’ll get the lowest fares on the airlines’ own websites – especially when that airline is Southwest, since they don’t share their fare data outside of their site. How much shopping is right? I know travelers who surf the web for an hour or so, then do it again a few days later, and again the following week, and then complain they can’t find fares worth buying. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. If you’re really serious about getting great deals, you’ve got to “work it.” That means constant searching … even a short time after midnight when some airlines may drop fares. Then, when you find something you can live with, pounce! More than once I’ve been in the unfortunate situation when, after days of shopping, I find a great deal, then decide I’ll grab dinner and think about it. Not a good move. Other travelers who weren’t thinking about food caught the last of the super deals.
- If it’s Tuesday, it’s time to fly. You’ve probably heard you’ll get the best fares on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Sometimes that’s true, since airlines often announce deals on Monday evening and by Tuesday morning other airlines have matched those fares to match the competition. But plenty of studies now show variations on that theme. For example, Texas A&M has found that airlines are more apt to lower fares on Saturday or Sunday to attract leisure travelers. The days you travel can make a difference in what you pay. Typically, the lowest fares are booked for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
- Sign up for airline newsletters and email offers. Yep, it’s more stuff to read, but you may be able to take advantage of discount prices that are promoted to frequent flyers first. For example, if there’s a fare war going on over new routes, you may be advised of it before it hits the mainstream media. At the very least, you may be able to rack up more airline points by tapping into a promotion.
- Sign up for frequent-flyer programs and email feeds. More to read, but you may find good deals like promo codes and two-fers that aren’t advertised elsewhere. If nothing else, use your loyalty as “leverage” when you need a favor from the airline. It can come in handy when the cheaper seats are sold out and you you’d like an upgrade.
- Buy tickets from an airline that will give you back the difference if the price goes down. Let’s say you buy a non-refundable ticket on Tuesday for $325 and then next day the fare drops $100. Call the airline and ask for your $100. You may get it, but beware of the “service fee” that may wipe out the refund. Don’t refuse a refund in the form of a travel voucher; that’s still a better deal than overpaying and not trying to get money back. Not all airlines are going to give you the time of day when they hear the word “refund,” but it’s worth a try. Typically, this strategy is more successful on airlines like JetBlue and Southwest versus big domestic carriers.
- When in doubt, pick up the phone. I know, it sounds like the Dark Ages, but it can work to your advantage. Here’s how. I called American and told the reservations agent in the frequent-flyer program that I’d been searching non-stop and couldn’t find what I wanted on my itinerary. I told her the price range I was shooting for. She didn’t lower any prices, but she did route me through an alternative airport I hadn’t thought about. Her suggestion saved me $200 on round-trip fare.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at email@example.com.
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