When the staff of Airfarewatchdog.com is researching airfares, we always start with a flexible travel date search, usually using Travelocity. Why flexible and why Travelocity? We'll get to the second question further down the page. Answering the "why flexible" part is easy.
Let's say you wanted to take a trip from New York to sunny Mexico sometime this winter and price is more important than when, or even where. Scanning the pages of our site recently we saw that United was (and hopefully is by the time you see this) offering base fares of $208 roundtrip from New York to Puerto Vallarta, before taxes. Sounds good (actually, it's great -- less than half what other airlines are charging). So you try November 9 departing and November 16 returning on Travelocity using specific dates. Ouch! The two lowest fares come out to $651 with taxes on Alaska Airlines and $745 on Mexicana. What the heck happened to $208? Then you try the flexible search, looking for the dates in green. Well, it so happens that if you look a little further out, leaving on January 9 and returning January 16, that same route (on United) is just $329 with taxes, about half what it was in November. And hey, in January you'll really be ready for some sunshine.
Lesson learned: Be Flexible. Travelers can often save money if they adjust their travel dates to take advantage of the lowest possible fare between any two cities. Oddly, however, statistics show that most airfare buyers ignore flexible searches. That's probably because the majority of travelers, such as those going on a cruise or attending a meeting or wedding, need to travel on set dates. But we believe that it's also because many airfare buyers simply aren't aware that flexible search options exist, or don't appreciate the savings that can be achieved by being flexible. As we saw in the example above, you can save hundreds of dollars simply by going a day or two earlier or later than you originally planned, or by postponing your trip for a month or two (Aunt Freda probably will be just as happy to see you in March as in May). Here are your options when performing a flexible fare search:
This search engine has the most flexible search option in the online travel business. It shows you fares up to 330 days ahead and includes all published routes, both international and domestic, with the exception of fares on JetBlue, Southwest, America West and a few other airlines that don't publish their fares on the site (once USAir absorbs America West's routes, we expect that its fares will show up in Travelocity's flexible fare searches). To use the flexi date function, click on the flexible travel dates box, enter the "to" and "from" airports, and click on select. A calendar of supposedly available dates will pop up, usually in green although sometimes in light blue. There is also an option to do a specific date search that returns fares plus or minus one-to-three days from your preferred dates of travel. Travelocity also automatically suggests lower fares from or to airports near those you originally specified in your search (Providence instead of Boston, for instance).
This site has arguably the second best flexible date search function. On the plus side, America West's fares are included and, like Travelocity, it shows fares up to 330 days ahead. However, it only returns fares on routes within North America, not international ones.
This site performs a flexible fare search only 30 days ahead, and you must specify the approximate length of your proposed trip, restrictions that don't exist on Travelocity. Again, international destinations are excluded, as are fares on Southwest and JetBlue. Look for the "Flexible dates" link in the lower left corner of the blue box, then choose one of the three options. Domestic and international destinations are suppored.
This site searches fares only between a limited selection of major US cities, although it used to offer a more extensive flexible date search option. No international fares, no JetBlue or Southwest fares.
Aggregators With No Flexibility
Some individual airline sites also provide a flexible date search option. Among these are American Airlines (click on the "Dates Flexible" red arrow), America West Airlines the Low Fare Finder option is the default), and US Airways, which has the best flexible search function of any domestic airline (of course, these latter two airlines have merged, so who knows what the future will hold). In addition, Southwest Airlines has a low fare finder that acts like a flexible search function and also a low fare list that gives you an idea of the entire range of fares between any two cities. Air New Zealand displays an easy to read calendar showing dates that its lowest sale fares are offered.
Of course, flexible travel dates don't work for everyone (college kids on school break, or last minute business travelers to name two categories). But if you like to save money and your travel dates aren't set in stone, we highly recommend bending a bit.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and blogger whose website, www.airfarewatchdog.com, tracks unadvertised airfare wars and other fare sales.
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