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On the ground, $4-a-gallon gas is a clear sign travel isn’t getting any cheaper heading into summer. But the cost of flying is headed sky high too – airfares have gone up seven times this year already.
On top of that, Southwest just completed its purchase of AirTran. Less competition usually means higher prices, although The Washington Post argues fares may eventually drop because of it. We’ll see.
Either way, that’s little comfort to fliers feeling airsick over prices now. But the best way to save isn’t to log on to Orbitz and jump on the best deal you see. Not anymore. The rules have changed because airlines have been fighting with the big deal sites.
First, American pulled its flights from Orbitz at the end of last year. Then, Expedia dumped American. Now American is suing Orbitz, while American and Expedia have kissed and made up. But Delta backed away from some travel sites too.
It’s a mile-high soap opera. How do you get away from all this bickering and find the best deal? Listen to Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson in the video below; then read on for more advice…
As Stacy mentioned in the video above, airfares are already up 15 percent over last year. Here’s how to cut that number down:
- Go to flight meta-search sites. These aren’t like Expedia or Orbitz, which are online travel services that handle your booking and earn commissions. Meta-search sites, on the other hand, simply aggregate fares. You find the best one, and get pointed to the site where you can buy that rate – basically like a search engine, but without all the irrelevant clutter you’d get from typing “cheap airfare” into Google. Examples include Kayak.com, Fly.com, and TripAdvisor.com.
- Check the outsiders. As mentioned above in the video, fewer airlines are sharing fare information with some sites, and some never did, like Southwest. JetBlue is not featured on most either, although Kayak includes it. (Here’s a list of airlines Kayak indexes.)
- Predict prices. How do you do that? You don’t, your computer does. Check out Bing’s travel tool, which assesses rate history and guesses where they’re headed. It will tell you how confident it is about the guess too. This way, you know whether to wait for something better. But don’t wait too long – rates start jumping up two weeks from the flight date, according to FareCompare.com. They recommend booking 2-12 weeks out.
- Time your flights. If you’re flexible on time and dates, try to book an early morning Tuesday or Wednesday flight, FareCompare suggests. They also say airlines tend to charge less for the first flight out of the day, and weekly price wars between airlines play into your favor on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
- Name your own price. Sites like Priceline.com let you make the price offer, but they require flexibility in exchange: You don’t know the airline, departure time, or layovers until you buy. You also can’t earn frequent flier miles. The price can be significantly lower than published fares, though – up to 50 percent in some cases. Try Hotwire.com too.
- Sign up for email alerts. Subscribe to your favorite airlines’ websites to get deals in your inbox. At TripAdvisor.com, you can get an instant alert when prices fall to targets you set. You can also try following them on Twitter.
- Book multi-stop and bail. This one’s controversial, and airlines definitely hate it. But The New York Times recommended it in this article. Why would you book a multi-stop flight and get off at the first stop? The answer’s easy, but counter-intuitive: Because it’s cheaper than the direct flight. Airlines operate on a hub system and offer cheaper fares to or from their base cities. So in some cases, pretending you want to fly to a major hub city, say Los Angeles – that happens to make a layover in the city you actually want to visit, like Dallas – saves you money over a direct flight. As the NYT article explains, American Airlines charges $375 for a nonstop one-way ticket from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth, but only $186 for Des Moines to LA with a layover in Dallas. So you book the longer flight, and save half the money by throwing away half the ticket. One obvious catch is that you can’t check baggage because it will end up in the wrong city. And realize that many airlines expressly forbid this behavior and most frown on it. Get caught and you theoretically could be banned from flying that airline. In fact, the Times article suggests that if you do get caught, fess up – according to the travel lawyers they interviewed (Travel lawyers? Who knew?), lying could actually result in fraud charges.