It used to be all so simple. Back in the days when the peppy stewardess (that's what they called them back then) would pin little plastic pilot wings on you (or your kids), airfares changed so infrequently that airlines actually printed them on their schedules. You'd call your favorite travel agent to find the best deal, pack your bags, and jet off. And there were exactly two fares to each destination: coach and first class.
Now, with airfares changing literally by the second and an alphabet soup of different offers, finding the "best" deal is a challenge. And it hasn't helped that some airlines have removed their fares from your favorite travel websites. But don't give up hope. This step-by-step guide will get you ready for takeoff.
Sign up for free airfare alerts
If I had to offer just one tip, this would be it. There are some simply astounding deals still available if you catch them in time. Recent examples: Baltimore to San Diego $177 round-trip; Boston to Peru $423 including all taxes; NYC to Uruguay $374 round-trip; and LA to Tokyo $671 tax-included.
Did you miss these bargains? Most people did. So why do all the work hunting down a low airfare yourself when you can have someone else do it for free? Many airfare search and listing sites, such as Travelocity.com, Hotwire.com, and Bing.com/travel (and, of course, Airfarewatchdog.com, the only site that includes Southwest Airlines) offer e-mailed airfare alerts when prices go down. This is just a partial list; do a browser search for "airfare alerts" to see what's available.
These alert services all work in slightly different ways. Some will let you specify airline, nonstop vs. connecting flights, and other criteria. Yapta.com will let you choose a specific flight to track (although that flight may or may not be the best deal compared to other flights). Others just let you know when a fare on a route you specify has gone down in price, regardless of the airline or flight time. Twitter is also a good source for fare sales. Follow your favorite airlines (@JetBlueCheeps for example) and even if I wasn't the Twitter-in-Chief, I'd still recommend @airfarewatchdog.
Get e-mail from your airlines
Next: Sign up for e-mails and frequent flier programs from as many airlines as you can tolerate. Sure, you already get enough e-mail, but you want to fly cheaply, right? Here's why: Airlines are trying to woo customers to book directly with them by offering special deals when you sign up for their newsletters and e-mail lists. One way they do this is by offering "promo code" deals that are redeemable only on their websites. It might be 10% off, or $10 off, or even a half-price sale. They also alert you to special deals that can only be booked on their sites or that are only available to members of their loyalty programs. Singapore Airlines, for instance, might send out sale alerts to their frequent flyers 48 hours before the general public learns about them. Here's a chart showing how to sign up for U.S.-based airlines' alerts.
Next step: ask yourself, Are you a flexible flier?
Most people aren't, but if you answer yes you're in luck, because you'll get the lowest airfares if it doesn't really matter what dates you fly to get the lowest fare. There have been some major changes lately in the flexible date search category, because Orbitz, Travelocity, and CheapTickets have disabled their 30-day flexible date search function.
If it doesn't really matter when you go, then you need to search on a website that caters to those with flexible travel dates. Start by clicking over to Cheapair.com, Kayak.com or Hotwire.com and check the "flexible dates" button or link. Southwest, too, has an excellent flexible date tool and United.com recently added a great flexible date search function. CheapAir actually shows you fares up to a 330-day range on some airlines (but only for domestic fares). The other sites require that you choose a 30-day range to search but they include international fares as well.
Do you have flexible destinations?
And if it doesn't matter not just when you go but where you go, there are some "fare map" sites that show the lowest flexible-date search fares on a map, leaving from a city you choose. One such is Google.com/Flights, which is very similar to Kayak Explore. They can be useful starting points, but neither site includes Southwest Airlines and their data is not always up-to-the-minute or comprehensive.
What if you're not flexible in your travel dates or destinations? The above-mentioned sites can be helpful in that case as well, but you also might want to try sites such as Tripadvisor.com/Flights and Momondo.com. These are "meta search" fare sites, and although they don't offer quite the travel date flexibility as some others do, they often include fares that the airlines sell only on their own websites. Again, none of them include Southwest's fares or fares on the smaller but growing Allegiant Airlines.
Speaking of flexible, consider "alternate" airports. Visiting Japan? Search for fares into closer-in Tokyo Haneda (HND) as well as the better-known and more obvious Narita (NRT). Fares from Philadelphia to Florida expensive? Did you know that Frontier (at least of this writing) flies from nearby Trenton, NJ to several Florida destinations for much less than you'd find from Philly? And Allegiant Airlines flies from many less-well known airports as does Spirit Airlines.
"Meta search" vs. online travel agency (OTA)
So what's the difference? For one thing, online travel agencies have toll-free numbers with agents standing by to help you book or re-book a flight; meta-search sites don't. A meta-search might send you directly to an airline to book your flight, or if the best deal is on a combination of airlines (say, going out on US Airways and coming back on United), they'll send you to an OTA to book. OTA's keep you on their own websites to book travel, and don't always have fares that the airlines are keeping for themselves, but they do show you the widest range of schedules and fares, and sometimes have lower fares than even the meta-search sites do. Plus, they offer air plus hotel packages that can sometimes save you serious cash.
Airline websites sometimes have the best fares
Next stop: your airline's website. Increasingly, airlines aren't sharing their very best fares with third-party sites such as Orbitz and Kayak. Case in point: recent fares to London from the West Coast for $420 round-trip including tax that were only available on Spanish airline Iberia's website (similar fares were twice that elsewhere). So once you've found a fare, definitely check airline sites directly rather than assuming your favorite third-party site will have all the best deals. Moreover, airline sites might be the only place to book perks like extra legroom seats (such as on JetBlue) and recently Frontier Airlines began charging for carry on bags if fares aren't bought directly on their site (they'll also only give you 25% of miles flown in their frequent flyer program if you buy elsewhere, and won't let you choose advance seat assignments, a crafty development meant to cut out middleman booking sites).
Read the rest of the article to learn about airline promo codes, when to use your miles, last minute fares, "wholesale fares," when to use a travel agent, getting refunds when a fare drops, the best days to buy and fly, and more.