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Top ten tips for finding low airfares
Tips on Saving Money on Airfares
The staff of Airfarewatchdog has gathered tips on how to find low fares using the Internet. The game keeps changing, but here is our best thinking to date: our top ten tips to snag low airfares.
Don't assume that Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia, and Sidestep all have the same fares.
They don't. Especially on international fares, one of these online travel agencies could have a fare several hundreds less or higher than another. One summer, Travelocity was selling seats to London on Virgin for $400-$470 round-trip, taxes included, from east and west coast cities, even for peak summer travel. Those fares were only available on Travelocity, not Orbitz or Expedia (they weren't even available on Virgin's own site). So check all the online agencies, and use multi-site search engine like Kayak and Booking Buddy.
Also, most online travel agencies such as Expedia exclude many of the smaller discount airlines such as Virgin America (which was recently added to Travelocity) and Orbitz only recently added JetBlue.
Search airline sites individually
Increasingly, airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. With the exception of Southwest, which sells fares on its own site exclusively, most of the airlines that do this are smaller domestic airlines or large international carriers, but we've even seen Delta do it, and we're not talking here just about last minute weekend fares. Alaska, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Jetblue, Malaysia, Frontier, Qantas, Singapore, SAS, Virgin America, and others are using this strategy. Spirit Airlines frequently has one cent, one dollar and other crazy low fares on its site only.
Low Cost Carriers like Allegiant Air usually don't share their fare data with third-party sites at all, although Jetblue fares are included in Travelocity, Cheapair.com and Kayak searches now, and USA3000 fares in Sidestep.
Try a flexible fare search
If you're at all flexible, you can sometimes save hundreds by adjusting your travel dates, often by just a day or two. Travelocity has one of the best flexible date search options in the industry because it searches 330 days ahead; although it only includes international fares on some major routes (of course, it's limited, as all many online agencies are, by its exclusion of Southwest and Allegiant Airlines). To use this feature, simply click on the "Flexible dates" button just below the "to" and "from" boxes on the flight search engine (check these step by step instructions if you're unsure how this works).
And be sure to try Travelocity's Asian affiliate Zuji.com for international flexible searches listed in US dollars (they also show business and first class flexible date results). Cheapair.com has a flexible search that also goes out 330 days but it charges $10 per booking vs. Travelocity's $7. Orbitz has a limited flexible date function that searches a span of only 30 days (click on "Flexible dates"), and Expedia does flexible search only between a few dozen major US cities (click on "My travel dates are flexible"). Sidestep.com and some other major sites have no flexible search capability. Increasingly, individual airline sites are improving their flexible date search functions. American, AerLingus, Air New Zealand, Spirit, and USA3000 all have decent ones and Southwest has a very good one.
Combine weekend fares
Last minute weekend fares are often great deals, but most people don't realize that they can construct itineraries by combining two of these fares. Let's say you want to fly from Boston to San Antonio next weekend, and you've signed up for all the weekly newsletters alerting you of these deals but there's no Boston/San Antonio deals listed. However, if there's a Boston to Atlanta fare for $128 round-trip, and an Atlanta to San Antonio fare for $108 round-trip, then there is indeed a Boston/San Antonio fare as well. Just buy two separate fares (we've noticed that Travelocity and some other sites do a good job of combining weekend fares in this manner). You can even combine such fares on two different airlines, but make sure you leave enough time in between connecting flights in case there's a delay.
Sign up for Ding fares, AA DealFinder, and other airlines' promotional emails
Southwest offers "Ding" deals that pop up on your computer (announced by an audible "ding", thus the name) that can save a few bucks off their already low fares. American sometimes offers discounts of 10-25% when you sign up for its DealFinder feature and enter a promo code on its site. It's also a good idea to register with the airlines' newletters because they often send out special deals and promo codes. Virgin America recently had a two for one sale, lowering fares between LA and New York, for example, to $140 RT, as a special newsletter promo. Alaska sends 10-20% discount "insider" promos to its subscribers on a regular basis. And JetBlue has frequent 10% off or $30 off promo code sales.
Buy hotel + air packages
It's often cheaper to buy an air/hotel package rather than airfare alone. When we say "cheaper" we mean that the total package with hotel is often less than the airfare without the hotel component. Lastminute.com is the online leader in this field. Travelocity owns Lastminute, so you'll often see "TotalTrip" options on Travelocity just above the airfare-only search results. Don't ignore these deals! Usually, they work best only if there are two of you traveling since the hotels are based on double occupancy. They're especially useful for last minute travel. Tour operators and your local travel agent also sell packages that might save you money, although not necessarily on last minute deals.
Some of the best fares appear on Saturdays
Although they're much less common than in past years, probably because the airines have installed new software to catch them, some of the best fares show up on Saturday mornings. This is probably because airlines can only change fares once a day (around 5 PM) on Saturday and Sunday. So, if you're an airline fare analyst, and you're trying to sneak one over your competition, you'll do it with the last fare change on Friday night, which appears in Travelocity, Orbitz, etc. around 1 or 2 AM on Saturday morning. Your competition can't match your sale fares until the 5 PM Saturday update (those fares appear in Travelocity around 8 or 9 PM that night).
Check fares often
Because airfares fluctuate like the stock market, you need to check them every day, sometimes two or three times a day, if you're serious about saving money. Airlines can update domestic fares three times a day during the week, and once on Saturday and Sunday (international fares change less frequently). And another little tip: be sure to clear the "cookies" on your internet browser (on Explorer you do this under the "tools" menu and "internet options" sub menu). Why do this? If a fare changes between two separate searches done over time on the same route, some fare search engines may return the results you viewed earlier rather than the new, lower results.
Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare
It's often cheaper to buy two fares rather than one. Let's say you're flying from New York to Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Check on one of the big sites like Expedia or Orbitz for a single fare (for example, JFK to Governor's Harbor, Bahamas) and then do two separate searches (JFK to Nassau and Nassau to Governor's Harbor). Chances are the two-fare strategy will save you a lot of cash. This fare trick also works for flights to Europe (fly into London or Manchester, UK on one fare and then hop on a discount European airline to reach your final destination) and Asia. To search route possibilities on these discounters, check out the Airfarewatchdog route maps page.
Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down
Let's say you've done your best to find the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare goes down $100. Sure, if you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference, providing of course that you don't change the times or dates of your flights (and the only thing that changed was the price); but it's a little-known fact that some airlines will charge you a "service" or "administrative" fee as high as $150 for domestic fares or from $250-$350 on international ones, wiping out any savings. And some airlines won't refund the difference at all. United and Alaska, however, will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee, as long as you accept the reimbursement in the form of a voucher good for future travel. Even better, Southwest gives you a credit for a future flight without charging a fee. This credit is valid for travel up to a year from the original travel date. Even on these less generous airlines, however, we've heard of plenty of instances where a polite entreaty will get you a full fare difference refund without the penalties, so it's worth try.
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