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Everything you need to know about buying airfares as cheaply as possible, in 500 words or less

By George Hobica

Airfarewatchdog.com


Look, I know you’re busy and have other stuff to read today, so I will keep this brief.

If I could tell you just one thing, it would be this: sign up for free airfare alerts. Time and again, I see articles whose main point is to crown one search engine—Kayak, or Travelocity, or Momondo or whatever—as the best bet to find a low fare. But usually, the price differences in these “bake off” comparisons are small potatoes, if they exist at all, because all airfare sites pretty much use the same fare data provided by the airlines. That said, meta search engines such as Kayak and Tripadvisor.com/flights will do a better job at finding the relatively few fares that the airlines sell only on their own sites.

There is no one “magic bullet” airfare search site!   The only sites that perform better on international fares are those selling “consolidator” fares, but these often come with caveats and extra restrictions, such as “miss your flight and you have to buy a whole new ticket” (you get what you pay for).

The big savings come from realizing that airfares can have wild and sudden swings, like stocks on the S&P 500. You may not have time to check them hour-by-hour or day-by-day, but airfare-tracking sites do, and will alert you when a fare goes down, sometimes by hundreds of dollars, either to a level you specify or by a percentage amount.

So sign up, it’s free! Some alert systems require that you first search for a fare before they’ll offer free email alerts; others let you sign up before searching. Here are some sites that offer alerts:

Don’t just sign up for one, because they all work a bit differently. Be aware that most don’t include Southwest Airlines fares or promo code fares (airfarewatchdog.com does, although it tracks far fewer routes than the others listed above).

And do sign up for the airlines’ frequent flyer programs and email alerts. They’ll often send out promo code and airline-site-only fare deals.

Also, if you’re searching on your own, do not forsake online travel agencies! Way too often I hear people exclaim, “I only buy directly from the airline sites.” But what if you can save $100 by flying out on Delta and back on United? Who’s going to tell you this? Delta? United? Not a chance.   Travelocity, Orbitz, Cheap Tickets, Expedia and other online travel agencies are going to tell you this.   

You already know that being flexible in your travel dates saves money. Problem is, most people are not flexible in their travel dates. Even so, Travelocity, Hotwire, Cheaptickets, and Orbitz have the best flexible date search functions (check out this helpful chart).

Is there a magic day to buy? A lot of sales pop up on Monday night and Tuesday, but the fare you’re looking for could go down at any moment, so if you just search once a week on Tuesday, you’re missing out.

Traveling at the last minute? You usually have two options: pay through the nose, or use Priceline.com or Hotwire.com.  Priceline’s name your own price feature is a super way to snag a good last minute fare.

Oops, that was more than 500 words, but just by a bit. One more tip: keep your seatbelt fastened whenever you’re in your seat and you’ll enjoy your fare savings even more.

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Fare of the Day: Boston, MA to Lisbon, Portugal

Posted by Ricky Radka on Saturday, February 27, 2010

Boston, MA (BOS) to Lisbon, Portugal (LIS). $587 round-trip, nonstop, including all taxes. June travel!

Finding most fares to Europe for late Spring/early Summer travel in the $800+ range? Don't worry, we are too.

So, when we found out that SATA International the major carrier to the Azores Islands of Portugal was adding additional flights from Boston, we decided to check out if they had any deals to go along with the added service. Luckily they did!

To find this price you must depart on Wednesdays starting June 9th and return on Mondays through June 22nd. The travel window is small but the prices are great for June travel.

Also available from Boston, MA (BOS) are flights to their hub of Ponta Delgada, Azores (PDL) for $472 RT, nonstop, including taxes, for similar dates in June.

Easiest to book using their official website www.sata.pt/en.

To learn more, visit Ricky Radka's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Fare of the Day: Phoenix to Montego Bay, Jamaica

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Friday, February 26, 2010

Phoenix to Montego Bay, Jamaica $297 round-trip, nonstop, incl. all taxes

This is part of the current Jamaica sale from US Airways, in honor of their new nonstop service between Phoenix and Montego Bay. Travel through April 30.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Air Travel

Fare of the Day: New York to Lima, Peru

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Thursday, February 25, 2010

New York to Lima, Peru $227 round-trip, incl. all taxes

Earlier this morning, we spotted some great fares to Lima, not just from New York but from all US cities served by Spirit Airlines, and all of them going for about the same $227 fare. They didn't stick around for long, of course, but we're happy to hear that some of you managed to book it!

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Fare of the Day: Newark to London, England

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Newark to London, England $560 round-trip, incl. all taxes, summer travel

Yep, this fare is valid for summer travel from June 1 through June 14, and again from August 16 through August 31. We can't imagine this one will last for long!

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Fare of the Day: Los Angeles to Kahului-Maui, Hawaii

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Los Angeles to Kahului-Maui $386 round-trip, nonstop, incl. all taxes

This fare is available from March through May. Live in the O.C.? This fare is good for nonstop travel from Santa Ana as well!

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Fare of the Day: Denver to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Monday, February 22, 2010

Denver to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands $261 round-trip, incl. all taxes

This fare is available for travel on select dates in March, April, and June. Other dates can jump in price to over $400 round-trip!

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Caribbean/Mexico/Latin America Airfares

Weekly Web Specials from Alaska Airlines

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Monday, February 22, 2010

Alaska Airlines has released the latest of their weekly web specials, with fares starting at $98 round-trip, before taxes. Rules and restrictions vary by route, though most fares are valid for travel from May 3 through May 16.

Tickets must be purchased within 24 hours of making reservations, and require a 14-day advance purchase. Fares include:

Boise to San Jose $218 round-trip

Spokane to Sacramento $198 round-trip

Houston to Seattle $278 round-trip

Long Beach to Seattle $198 round-trip

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Domestic US Fares

New airfare search sites compete with old standbys, but are they really better?

By George Hobica

Airfarewatchdog.com

In the last few months, several relatively new airfare search sites have begun fiercely competing for your attention.

The newest entrants, both so-called “meta” search engines, are from Travelzoo (fly.com) and TripAdvisor (tripadvisor.com/flights). “Meta,” according to Wikipedia, means, among other things, “beyond” or “after,” and the metas do indeed go beyond standard online travel agency fare search to include the airlines’ “private stock” fares as well as searching multiple online travel agencies. There are now six major airfare meta search sites, including Kayak.com, Bing.com/travel, Momondo.com, and Dohop.com (I'm not including Sidestep.com, now owned by Kayak and essentially the same thing). But how do they compare to the older online travel agencies (OTA's) such as Travelocity, Orbitz, Cheap Tickets, and Expedia? (Disclosure: airfarewatchdog.com is owned by Expedia, which also owns TripAdvisor.)

Advantage: Meta

One thing that meta search engines do especially well is finding airfares that the airlines sell only on their own sites. For example, Hawaiian Airlines often has special sales that can only be booked at hawaiianair.com; Cathay Pacific usually sells its New York to Vancouver route for less on its own site than it does through online travel agents. An OTA will not find these airline-site-only fares; in many but not all cases, the metas will. (That said, neither meta nor OTA will hunt down the increasing number of promo code or “twitter” fares that are only bookable on the airlines’ sites).

Also keep in mind that no meta includes fares on Southwest Airlines, which is a pretty big gap. Momondo.com makes an attempt to do so, but it’s not a very good implementation, since, in our tests, the fare results are not real time; Bing merely reminds you to check Southwest if it flies a route you’ve searched, but doesn’t itself return fare results—still better than nothing. (Southwest sends out cease and desist letters when meta searchers attempt to mechanically “crawl” its fares; perhaps Momondo gets away with it because it’s based in Denmark, beyond the reach of Southwest’s legal beagles?).

Nor do OTA’s include Southwest’s fares, but they do accomplish feats that meta search does not.

Advantage: Online Travel Agency

One of these is packaging hotels and airfare together, sometimes, amazingly, for less than airfare alone. Many times airfarewatchdog.com researchers have found a “TotalTrip” option on Travelocity.com, for example, including airfare and several nights hotel, at nearly the same price, or even less, than the airfare for the same destination. These package options are automatically presented, when available, whether or not you thought to ask for them.

Another OTA plus: sometimes your cheapest flight will be outbound on one airline and returning on a second carrier. Delta.com is not going to tell you this, obviously preferring to show you flights only on Delta. An OTA will, which explains why many times even the metas send you only to online travel agencies rather than to airline sites directly.

And metas are not very good at flexible search. Sure, you can perhaps search one to three days in either direction of your primary dates, but that’s about it. What if fares to Cancun are hundreds less in February than in March? A meta will make it much harder for you to discover this than an OTA will, since OTA’s have much more robust flexible date searches. Travelocity will search over as many as 330 days at a glance, and Orbitz up to 30 days at a time.

So will the newer metas find you a lower fare than the older ones? Is one of them a category killer? Are they better than online travel agencies? It’s hard to answer in the affirmative to any of those questions. But those might be the wrong questions to begin with.

Most of the metas and OTA’s offer free alerts when an airfare goes down in price, and that might be their most useful feature. Rather than searching for a fare yourself, you may save money by setting alerts well ahead of your travel dates and pouncing when a trip suddenly becomes cheaper or reaches a price you specify.

Fare of the Day: New York to Dublin, Ireland

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Friday, February 19, 2010

New York to Dublin, Ireland $487 round-trip, incl. all taxes

This fare is good for travel only in April.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips
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