By Wendy Perrin, CNTraveler.com
"Google 'best time to buy airfare' and you'll find 50 different competing theories. And they're all wrong," George Hobica told me over lunch the other day. George is the founder of AirfareWatchdog, the airfare deals site that includes some low fares not found on other sites. "Don't listen to anyone who says there's a magic time or day to buy airfare. There is no secret time. You need to look four times a day -- minimum -- every day of the week, as far in advance as you can."
Sounds like a ton of work. Not nearly as simple as looking on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. Eastern or on Wednesdays at 1 a.m. But George has just compiled his "12 Tips for Finding Low Airfares, 2014 Edition" to make your airfare shopping easier. You probably already do many of the 12, as do I, but I thought I should share three nifty new takeaways from lunch:
Keep your airfare search results page open on your computer screen all day.
Whatever airfare search site you're using, just leave your Web browser window open on your computer screen and hit "Refresh" at least four times a day. Airlines change fares all day long, says George, and "even if the fares don't change, the number of seats available at that fare will change."
When you can be flexible with your travel dates, use Kayak or Google Flights.
Flexible date search allows you to look for airfares within a certain window of time and pinpoint the least expensive days to fly within that window. I've always used ITA Software for this, but George recommends two tools that may be easier for many people to use. At Kayak, register your email address, click on "Flights," then click on "More search options" and choose "Flex Month." As for Google's Explore Flights tool, you can specify a trip length and month, allowing you to search for the lowest fares within whatever window of time you've got.
If you are flexible about your destination as well, use Adioso.
When you're open to suggestions for where to go and you just want a great airfare, Adioso works well because it lets you search not just for a specific destination city but for an entire region. Instead of having to limit your search to, say, "New York City to Copenhagen," you can punch in "New York City to Europe" and see what's available in, say, April or May.
Of course, the easiest way to get around time-consuming airfare shopping might be simply to have low fares emailed to your inbox. AirfareWatchdog's fare alerts include discounted promo-code fares as well as low fares on Southwest Airlines that other sites' alerts may not include. Personally, my favorite of the three types of fare alerts is the "Departure City alerts" because I want to know what surprise deals crop up from my home airport as well as other airports within a reasonable driving distance of home.
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Air Arabia debuted in 2003 as the first low-cost carrier to service the Middle East and Northern Africa, and seven years later, remains the area’s leading budget airline – despite newcomers’ attempts to pilfer away budget-minded flyers. Air Arabia has stayed true to its slogan, “Pay Less Fly More,” keeping fares low while still providing the safe and streamlined service that it's become so reputed for. The minds behind the award-winning company continue to brainstorm new ways to keep ahead of other budget airlines – their latest project, announced in June, will amp up service even more with a fourth hub in Amman, Jordan, offering direct flights to Europe, North Africa, and Asia]. Outside the airspace, in November 2010 the brand plans to debut its budget-friendly, 300-room Air Arabia Centro Hotel at Sharjah Airport, featuring an eatery, pool, and business center.
Throughout its 32 years of service, this doyen of the budget carriers has enjoyed numerous accolades for its high standards of service, and in 2010 took home its sixth Skytrax “World Airline Award” in the best budget airline category (in 2008 it also earned “Best Cabin Crew” accolades). Little wonder, given Air Berlin’s stance on not nickel-and-diming its passengers; offering complimentary snacks, beverages, and newspapers on-board; as well as flexible booking options that allow customers to modify flights sans the exorbitant, industry-standard change fees. For cutting-edge convenience, the MMS (Multimedia Message Service) program permits flyers to reserve a seat, check in, and have their boarding pass sent directly to their mobile phone. The airline also scores points in the family department – while many budget airlines leave parents feeling like they should apologize for flying with their little ones, this carrier makes a family’s flight more enjoyable with amenities like cots for infants, baby bags (filled with a bottle, bib, and nappy), toys, and special childrens' dining menus – not to mention the reduced rates for children under 12.
Born of the leading Brazilian highway transportation group, Grupo Aurea, back in '01, GOL has quickly evolved into Brazil's second-largest airline, offering up some fierce competition to current lead contender, TAM. Its modernized Boeing fleet (which operates at speeds that are 12 percent faster than similar competitor models) and super-low fare policy, has coupled well with on-board niceties like a nutritious snack menu and a smartly dressed staff (two of Brazil’s most famous stylists, Gloria Coelho and Ricardo Almeida, designed the uniforms). What’s more, GOL has branched out for an expanding international presence, most recently in July announcing a frequent-flyer agreement with Delta that’s sure to put GOL more squarely on the radar of an American clientele.
When JetBlue first took to the skies in 2000, it was a tiny two-line carrier connecting New York City to Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale. Ten years later, the airline’s vast network and stellar reputation (it's held the highest ranking among low-cost carriers for customer satisfaction by JD Power & Associates for five straight years) have exploded on the aviation scene. Its on-board technology is what has really set JetBlue ahead of other budget airlines, with seat-back personal entertainment units that include 36 channels of DIRECTV, XM radio, and pay-per-view movies. What’s more, JetBlue was the first U.S. airline (back in December of '07) to offer free in-flight e-mail and messaging for Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and BlackBerrys – a perk cherished (at long last) by both business and leisure travelers.
Awards have been jetting towards this Australian budget airline, including its 2009 ranking as the top Australia and New Zealand carrier in the coveted Skytrax’s “Best Low-Cost Airline” category. Launched in 2004, the carrier's domestic and international services stretch the globe, but not your wallet, with low fares that have been known to tumble below rates of $5 one-way (not including taxes and fees). In fact, the airline – along with sister carriers Jetstar Asia and Jetstar Pacific, all of which parent company Qantas has stakes in – is so confident in its rates, that they've put a price-beat guarantee into place for routes to and from Singapore (and other cities) that will beat any competitor airline’s rates by 10 percent. Unlike many budget airlines, Jetstar Airways also offers upgrades to StarClass on international flights, a premium seating area that's inclusive of food, drinks, and entertainment.
Part of the namesake Indian beer empire, Kingfisher launched in 2005, emerging among a new crop of privately-owned Indian airlines that offer great service, decent food, and clean, modern planes at reasonable prices – others include SpiceJet and IndiGo; another, Jet Airways, is priced higher. Primarily serving India’s rapidly growing and increasingly mobile middle class, these airlines have also transformed the average visitor’s India experience, largely removing those tediously slow, if romantic, train journeys from the equation. What’s more, Kingfisher finalized a contract with OneWorld in June, linking the airline to both American Airlines’ and British Airways’ frequent-flyer programs. Despite some financial problems (nothing new among budget airlines), Kingfisher continues to promise passengers the “royal treatment,” offering on-demand entertainment in its red leather seats (though not in its low-fare class), complimentary gourmet Indian dishes, and a choice between business, economy, or low-fare class seating (on its domestic routes).
If you ever hear a flight attendant tell passengers that if they “don’t know how to operate a seat belt, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed in public unsupervised,” you're most likely flying Kulula Air. The Johannesburg-based airline is known for its sense of humor, along with its affordable rates. Started in 2001, Kulula Air has brought budget air travel to South Africa and beyond on the African continent. Named for a Zulu (the largest South African ethnic group) word meaning “light, easy, and simple,” Kulula offers a full service of straightforward travel options, including car rentals, adventure outings, and even cellular phone packages. Tip: It has been rumored that wearing green onto the wildly decorated green and blue planes will get you a free Kit Kat from the comedian attendants on board (a fun perk compared to many budget airlines).
Taking speed from the road to the sky, former Formula One race-car driver Niki Lauda founded quirky discount airline NIKI in 2003. Rather than cutting luxury to conserve cost, NIKI relies on quality patron perks to keep bookings booming (it seems to have worked – profits rose by 75 percent between 2008 and 2009, and NIKI added flights to six European cities to its roster in 2010). Extras include complimentary in-flight snacks that forgo the peanuts in favor of hearty sandwiches, plus entertainment options like free magazines, newspapers, TV shows, movies, and radio stations. If you’d like to spend some of the money you saved on the cheap flight, indulge in their on-board store (which hocks everything from earphones to Frisbees to Swarovski jewelry). Or, eat like royalty and upgrade your food to gourmet Demel (think minced veal or yellow chicken curry – a major upgrade from budget airlines' usual staples), purveyor to the Habsburg court in Vienna.
Experience Porter (established in 2006) at its prime by flying one of its classy planes out of Toronto, its hub city and the site of a sleek departure lounge touting comfy chairs--perfect for unwinding airport stress. If you’d like to stay up and alert, indulge in a complimentary self-serve latte in a heated mug, or opt to get some work done at the business center, where passengers can surf the web with free wireless Internet. In-flight is truly refined: Sip a complimentary glass of beer or wine, stretch out with lots of legroom in the two seat-only configurations (no chance of being the cramped middleman), and enjoy it all in peace and quiet (aircrafts feature a noise and vibration suppression system to dull that flying buzz). Bonus features for those who can’t commit or have busy travel schedules (and more proof that Porter is decidedly atypical among budget airlines): Passengers may purchase their tickets in bulk with a pre-paid “Porter Pass” of up to 100 one-way trips, or opt for a "Freedom Fare," which allows free flight changes all the way to the day you take off.
Aboard Virgin America, innovation, aesthetics, and comfort blend seamlessly for a flight that will make you feel like a VIP whether or not you splurge for premium seating. Its ambition to “bring great service back to the skies” has inspired a forward-thinking business strategy invested in style, entertainment, and relaxation, as well as the maintenance of attractively low fares. In-flight absinthe sales and a new frequent-flyer mile link with trendy hotel chain Joie de Vivre ups the cool quotient even more, but passengers need only turn on the TV to know that this is a different kind of affordable airline: The CW’s “Fly Girls” reality show (which aired in early 2010) chronicled the lives of five Virgin America flight attendants. Onboard, indigo and violet mood lighting changes throughout the flight, responding to the time of day to help passengers relax. Expect live satellite television, 20 new pay-per-view blockbusters, more than 3,000 MP3s (plus radio and audiobooks), in-flight food ordering, gaming, and a chat function that enables seat-to-seat conversations. All photos courtesy of Wikimedia.
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