Yes, fares on many routes are much more expensive this holiday season than last, but airfares are not static and there are (relative) deals to be had any time of year. Here is Airfarewatchdog.com's best advice for making your airfare dollars go farther no matter what the time of year.
1. Sign up for the airlines' email feeds and frequent flyer programs
Yes, we know, you already get too much email, but the airlines want to develop a one-on-one relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50 percent off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up. Airline sites sell much more than airfares these days (hotels, rental cars, credit cards and such), and they will entice you to deal direct rather than use a third party site such as Orbitz. Here are links to US domestic airline sign up pages and for international sign ups. If you're on Twitter, you might also want to follow the airlines' tweets, which they're using to promote exclusive Twitter-only deals. We signed up for Virgin America's frequent flyer program and because we haven't flown them yet we keep on getting promo code discount offers to give them a try.
2. Be a flexible travel date flyer
If you don't care when you go as long as the fare is low, try a flexible date search. It's getting harder to search airfares based on flexible travel dates now that many sites (Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity and Expedia among them) have eliminated their flexible date calendars. But Kayak.com still has a good one (you must register as a user to see it under Flights/more options/flex month). Another good site is Adioso.com and Google has two sites worth exploring: www.google.com/flights/explore and www.google.com/flights. More about flexible travel date search here.
3. Search airline sites individually, but not exclusively
As noted above, many airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code fares. International airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Qantas regularly offer lower fares (i.e., $100-$400 less) on their own web sites compared to what you'll find on Kayak or Orbitz. And yet, you shouldn't ignore online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity, because these sites will tell you if it's cheaper flying out on one airline and back on another. In general, airline sites want you to fly only on their "metal."
4. Buy hotel + air packages
It's often significantly cheaper to buy an air plus hotel package rather than airfare alone, especially for last minute travel. We often see Travelocity "TotalTrip" offerings, especially on last minute flights, pop up with hotel plus air for half the price of air alone. Lastminute.com is also a great source for finding last minute packages.
5. Use Priceline for last minute trips
If you don't have a 7-, 14-, or 21-day advance purchase window to buy your fare, your best bet is the "name your own price" feature of Priceline.com. True, you won't know the exact flight times or airline you're flying until to pay for your trip, but you can save 50% or more. Hotwire.com can also be useful for last minute trips.
6. Use consolidators, but beware of the restrictions
Especially with the economic downturn, business and first class cabins will be emptier in 2010, and deals will be amazing. Consolidators specializing in premium cabins will have some great deals, and the airlines themselves will be heavily discounting their premium cabins, so check the specials on their web sites. Sites like Vayama.com, airfare.com and Asia.com also sometimes sell consolidator fares, but read this to understand how these fares work and what the extra restrictions might be.
7. Consider the extra fees before you buy
If Southwest has a fare of $198 round-trip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest actually has the lowest fare because Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, whereas United would charge each way for three. You can find baggage fee charts here.
8. Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare
If you're flying to a destination in Europe, you might save money by purchasing one fare from the US to, say, Dublin, and another from Dublin onward on Ryanair.com (just beware of Ryanair's onerous fees). Same holds true for some destinations in Asia (fly into Singapore and catch a low cost carrier such as Airasia.com from there) and to some smaller Caribbean destinations via San Juan or the Bahamas. Even domestically, two fares are often less than one, such as the recent scenario where Dallas to Honolulu was selling for $350 round-trip with tax, but Houston/Honolulu was $800. As you're no doubt aware, you can fly Houston-Dallas for a lot less than $450! Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time between connecting flights in case one flight is delayed.
9. Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down
Let's say you've found the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare for the same itinerary goes down. If you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference. But some airlines will charge you a costly "administrative" fee of $150 or more, wiping out any savings. Others will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee. Currently, the "nice" airlines are JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska.
10. Check fares several times a day, and don't listen to airfare pundits who predict airfares
A lot of people like to pretend they're clairvoyant, and they know where airfares are headed. But airlines are unpredictable creatures, and any airfare expert who claims he knows that airfares will be lower or higher in the coming months or the coming day is suspect. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading, any more than we can predict the stock market, because we have no idea when the economy will improve, or how much airlines will cut back capacity, or when the next flu epidemic will hit. If we could, we'd all be comfortably retired by now! And although many people swear by Bing.com/Travel's predictions, doesn't it make sense that if Bing really could predict airfare directions accurately that every other site would be out of business by now? But that hasn't happened. Fares fluctuate throughout the day, and the number of seats offered at the lowest fares also changes frequently. So if you don't like the fare at 10 a.m., check at 2 p.m. or the next day and you may be surprised.