Day in, day out, the airfare researchers at Airfarewatchdog.com (www.airfarewatchdog.com) use every method possible to find the lowest fare on any given route. What we've discovered from our years of playing fare detective is that instead of getting easier, the rules of the game keep changing and consumers really need to do their homework or they'll overpay. But if you follow our ten rules of low fare search, you'll have a fighting chance.
Search Airline Sites Individually
Increasingly, airlines are launching "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. With the exception of Southwest (www.southwest.com), now the second largest carrier by passengers flown, 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. Air New Zealand, Aloha, Malaysia, Frontier, Qantas, Singapore, SAS, Spirit, and others are using this strategy. Alaska Airlines has almost-weekly 20 percent off sales that you won't find anywhere but Alaska's site (www.alaskaairlines.com). Niche carriers like USA3000 (www.usa3000.com) and Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com) usually don't share their fare data with third-party sites at all, and although USA3000 fares are included in Sidestep.com searches, that airline has frequent $10 off sales that are only valid only on its website.
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 hundred dollars less than or higher than another. Last April, 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 available on only Travelocity, not Orbitz or Expedia (they weren't even available on Virgin's own site). So check all the online agencies, including Cheapair.com, Hotwire, and Kayak, in addition to the ones already mentioned.
Try a Flexible Fare Search
If it doesn't really matter when you fly (Aunt Mary will be just as happy to see you in August as in September), you can sometimes save hundreds by adjusting your travel dates, often by just a day or two. Travelocity used to have the best flexible date search option in the industry for two reasons: it searched 330 days ahead, and it included international flights both between the U.S. and international destinations, and also flights between international cities. Thanks to an edict from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Travelocity no longer lists fares internationally (because they neglected to include all the fuel surcharges and other add-ons), but they're still a valuable source for domestic flights. And if you really like Travelocity and miss its full flexible search functions, visit its Asian affiliate Zuji.com (www.zuji.com) where you can search flights in U.S. dollars (apparently the U.S. DOT's reach doesn't extend to Asia).
Orbitz.com is now the leader in international searches, with two caveats: you can only search by 30-day windows, and for reasons only known to themselves, they have been playing a cat and mouse game with their flexible search function, hiding it one week, and displaying it on their home page the next (if you can't find it, try looking on their site map). Orbitz's flexible search is powered by ITASoftware (www.itasoftware.com), which has its own problems, frequently sending back undecipherable error messages (be patient, it eventually will work). Increasingly, individual airline sites are improving their flexible date search functions. American, AerLingus, Air New Zealand, Spirit, Southwest, and USA3000 all have decent ones.
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 Southwest's Ding Fares and Frontier's Fare Alerts
Southwest offers daily "Ding" (southwest.com/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. Frontier Airlines has begun sending out similar fares by e-mail. In both cases, the fares expire the same day they're announced but they're often good for travel far into the future.
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. Site59.com (www.site59.com) is the online leader in this field. Travelocity owns Site59, 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.
Search for Fares Early in the Morning and on Weekends
Airlines play games with airfares -- sometimes, it seems, merely to annoy their competitors. If you check a New York to Seattle fare before going to bed one night it might be $228 round-trip, but check at 8am the following day and it could be $108. But that sneak sale, which could be valid for travel up to 330 days in the future, will probably last only a few hours, and seats will sell quickly. And for reasons that we can only speculate on, airlines lower fares on Saturday mornings and during the weekend (this is also when those "fat finger" airfare mistakes seem to happen). The aforementioned peak summer deals on Virgin to London popped up on a Saturday afternoon, and those now famous 88Â¢ USAir round-trips on a Saturday morning.
Check Fares Often
Domestic airfares can change up to three times a day during the week, and once a day on weekends. 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. 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? 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 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, but it's a little-known fact that some airlines will charge you a "service" or "administrative" fee as high as $100 for domestic fares or from $200-$300 on international ones, wiping out any savings. United, however, will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee, as will U.S. Airways (which prominently displays this policy on its site) and JetBlue as long as you accept the reimbursement in the form of a voucher good for future travel. Northwest charges just $25, for both domestic and international fares. American and Delta extract the $100-$300 fees; Southwest gives you a credit for a future flight without charging a fee. 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.
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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