Last year was a buyer's market for airfares despite all the angst over extra fees for baggage and meals. When we crunched numbers from the Department of Transportation, we found that average ticket prices dropped at 99 of the 100 busiest U.S. commercial airports in late 2009. (The exception? Savannah, Ga., up 2.5 percent.) Read on for tips that can help you navigate your way to savings this year.
Shifting your travel plans by even two to three days can reap big savings, particularly during holidays and other peak times. Many travel sites offer flexible-search capabilities and other excellent tools that help with this. There's Priceline's Inside Track, Expedia's Trend Tracker, Hotwire's Trip Watcher, Travelocity's flexible-dates search, and the Calendar Matrix Displays used by Orbitz and CheapTickets.
We found that moving a four-day trip from St. Louis to Seattle back two weeks yielded $323 in savings on Orbitz; moving a trip from New York City to Rome up by just four days saved $1,355 on CheapTickets. Even on the airlines' own sites you can ferret out big savings; we found a $187 spread for identical flights booked just one day apart at Southwest's Web site.
Remember the old "Saturday night stay-over" rule for lower fares? Experts say that is no longer a prerequisite for lower costs for many itineraries. But you might find the best deals for flights departing on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
It also pays to be flexible about the time of day you fly, particularly when booking on short notice. Prices fluctuate throughout the day's schedule. For example, a flight on Southwest between Detroit and Orlando, Fla., cost $173 for a 1:15 p.m. departure, $98 less than a 7:10 a.m. flight. A return flight cost $139 at 6:40 a.m., $103 less than a 4:20 p.m. trip. At JetBlue.com, a nonstop trip from New York to Long Beach, Calif., was $362 at 1:15 p.m., $220 less than a connecting flight 50 minutes earlier at 12:25 p.m.; on the return, a nonstop was $224 at 12:40 p.m., $495 less than a connecting flight at 6:03 p.m.
Many low-cost carriers operate at "secondary" airports, where fares are lower. In some cases, that might involve a longer bus or taxi ride, but the savings can be worth it.
Consider the chart below, which reflects the average domestic fares for flights from airports in several U.S. regions in late 2009, the most recent period available. Many variables affect the prices, including destinations, length of flights, and airlines. But the overall averages tell a story. Remember Savannah? Prices went up after low-fare carrier AirTran pulled out and Delta raised fares.
It pays to go to the airline's own site every time you think you've found a good fare elsewhere. You might find more flight choices on the carrier's site, and you'll rarely pay booking fees.
Carriers have become very aggressive about bypassing commissions paid to third-party sites. And some low-fare airlines, including Southwest, offer fares only through their own booking channels. That means no one site always has all the available fares. For example, at press time Cathay Pacific Airways' Deal of the Month (round-trips from San Francisco to Hong Kong for $827 and to Manila for $838) was available only at its own Web site.
One of the best-kept secrets in travel is that little "promo code" box on airline sites. By signing up at the airline's site or with its frequent-flyer program, you'll receive promotional codes—a series of numbers and/or letters you type into those boxes to unlock big savings. How big? The deals usually range from 10 percent to 30 percent off and are occasionally as high as 50 percent off, but they're short-lived, so you must act fast. Airfarewatchdog and FareCompare.com provide updates on exclusive promo fares.
There are techie tools that help, too. Southwest's Ding is a downloadable application that alerts you (with an audible ding) when an exclusive fare pops up. And American Airlines offers DealFinder, an app that delivers "personalized offers" based on the travel profile you create.
Consider flying on a major carrier into its overseas gateway and switching to a local low-cost airline. There has been an influx of low-cost European and Asian airlines recently, so you can cut costs and add a stopover in a second city. For example, we priced Aer Lingus from Boston to Dublin and back, and added a round-trip from Dublin to Paris on discount carrier Ryanair; the total was $668. The best Travelocity could do for a comparable round-trip from Boston to Paris was $143 more; Expedia was $145 more, and Orbitz was $175 more. At Air France's site the fare was $336 more.
That $827 round-trip from San Francisco to Hong Kong available from Cathay Pacific's site could be coupled with a round-trip from Hong Kong to Singapore on Jetstar for a total of $968. The cheapest round-trip from San Francisco to Singapore alone on the same dates costs $1,027 at Singapore Airlines' site.
Finding the sweet spot between advance-purchase discounts and last-minute sales can be tough. You generally don't need to book more than 90 days in advance unless you're going to a special destination. And most times, booking 21 days in advance will get you pretty good fares. But with the right tools, you can get bargains inside the seven-day distress window, too. Bing offers intelligent guesses and specific advice to wait or buy. FareCompare.com provides detailed histories of fare fluctuations to help you make better choices. Other helpful tools include Trip Watcher from Hotwire, Price Drop Alert from Priceline, and FareWatcher Plus from Travelocity. The best time to shop? Many sales are announced on Monday evenings and Tuesday mornings, but bargains can pop up at any time, so keep searching.
Travel search sites can help execute that strategy, which is especially useful for trips involving smaller cities. At ITA Software (www.itasoftware.com), which directly provides travel-search technology to two dozen airlines and travel sites, we found the lowest round-trip fare from Lexington, Ky., to Orlando, Fla., on four days' notice was $426 using US Airways and AirTran, $24 less than the lowest single-airline fare with Delta. At Orbitz, the lowest round-trip fare from Hartford to Singapore was $2,350 with a mixed itinerary from Delta and Japan Airlines, $555 less than the lowest single-carrier fare from Delta. At Mobissimo, a round-trip from Reno, Nev., to Tokyo cost $1,172 for a combined Alaska Airlines/Korean Air booking, a savings of $631 compared with United Airlines alone.
Refundable airfares provide more flexibility in case your plans change, but they can cost hundreds more. And if the price drops on a nonrefundable fare? A few carriers will allow you to take advantage of the new lower fare without charging a change fee, which runs from $75 to $150. Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and Southwest will provide a credit to be used on your next flight—at no extra cost.
Other carriers also provide credits but add fees. To learn about such fare drops, go to www.yapta.com (as in "Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant"), a site that offers advice on refunds.
Sites such as Priceline and Hotwire offer considerable savings if you don't mind booking blind. Priceline claims its "Name Your Own Price" option provides up to 40 percent off; Hotwire claims the same, provided you book within seven days of departure. Over the years we have found that they generally are cheaper than sites that publish the price up front. Even so, there are trade-offs, especially with Priceline: