How to beat the high cost of airfare
by Pete Werner
It is an unfortunate sign of the times. As the cost of fueling our cars continues to climb, so too does the cost of jet fuel. In just the last year alone, the price of jet fuel has risen more than 60%. The result has been the addition of fees for things like checking luggage, overweight bags, bottled water and breathing. But if you think the first half of 2008 was bad watch out. The rest of the year will see even bigger fare increases, coupled with a 15% reduction in overall airline capacity. Yes – the airlines are taking planes out of service and running fewer routes in an effort to maximize fuel efficiency. By some estimates, you could expect to see fares increase anywhere from 10 to 40% depending on the time of year and where you’re traveling.
While there are few ways to get around the price increases, the best strategy for the savvy traveler is to start getting acquainted with the process of purchasing plane tickets commando style. Many of you reading this are accustomed to planning your Disney vacations like finely orchestrated military maneuvers, but it has always shocked me how few put that same effort or energy into purchasing airfare. So, if outrageous airfare is threatening to keep you from your next trip, read on.
1) Flexibility is key.
In an ideal world you would get the best rate on the exact dates of your trip. It’s time to breathe deep and face the facts – the world is far from ideal right now. If your vacation time is important to you, you’re going to have to be as flexible as possible about when you travel . In terms of booking airfare at a reasonable price, be willing to travel Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays during historically slower travel periods. You should also consider being flexible about what airport you are flying in to / out of. Sometimes a longer drive to another nearby airport can yield significant savings. For instance, saavy travelers to Orlando know to always check fares flying into and out of Tampa as well. We’ve seen the difference in fares between the two airports at time can be as much as $100 per ticket. Always check pricing at nearby airports.
While this is not a hard and fast rule, sometimes you can save money if you book a flight that includes a stop over. Don’t overlook this option when researching your flights. If you do find a good fare that includes a connecting flight, be sure to leave yourself a minimum of 1 ½ to 2 hours between connections. U.S. airlines are having a tough time staying ‘on schedule’, and without enough time between connections, you could find yourself stranded in Cincinnati when you would otherwise be frolicking in the Magic Kingdom.
2) Use the tools.
One of the blessings of the internet is the constant evolution of tools to help us track airfares and do comparative shopping. The recent trend among some sites is ‘perpetual tracking’ – where you flag a particular flight and receive email updates as the prices on that flight changes. There are other sites known as “fare aggregator” sites that search multiple sources to find information. I suggest using a combination of tools to help you make the most informed decision possible. Here are some of my favorites:
Yapta.com - While anyone can use Yapta.com (stands for “your amazing personal travel assistant”). and it’s tools, it does seem slanted a bit towards the business or frequent traveler. Nevertheless, Yapta allows you to search all the major airlines for flights and options, then flag the ones you like. Registered users will receive notification via email when the price on your tracked fares change. You can also use Yapta to track flights you’ve already purchased and it will alert you if the fare goes down. Many airlines offer some kind of compensation for reduced fares, and this feature alone could save you a bundle if there’s a price drop after you purchase your tickets.
Farecompare.com – This site takes a similar approach in advising you when a fare you’re tracking has changed in price. This site has a very unique feature: you can not only search for airfare thru their system, but it will show you the lowest prices for the next 11 months. If you follow tip #2 (be flexible), this site can save you a fortune, as you can see a calendar of ‘lowest prices’ for one year out, allowing you to choose the best dates and price for your trip.
Farecast.com - While it does not offer ‘perpetual tracking’ , another great resource is farecast.com – farecast allows you to search for your requested dates, compares fares from most major airlines and will even tell you whether you should buy now or wait. Farecast predicts whether the cost is likely to increase or decrease in the next 30 days, and will even rate how confident it is in its prediction.
Southwest – Southwest airlines runs some pretty good deals, and their ‘no fee’ policy (see below) is winning more and more fans. However, most of the major aggregator sites don’t include Southwest in their search results. It makes good sense to always check Southwest in addition to any other research you are doing.
3) It’s all about the fee’s
As a general rule, the traveling public in the U.S. is not accustomed to paying lots of extra fees when flying. We’ve become used to checking two bags for free, being served at least a bag of complimentary peanuts, and not having to pay for water or soft drinks. Well, that’s starting to change – and it’s important that we now factor in these additional fees when doing comparative shopping for airfare. While airline “A” might have a slightly lower fare than airline “B”, differing fees between them could cost or save you hundreds of dollars.
A good source of keeping track of airline fees can be found on farecompare.com (http://www.farecompare.com/resources/airline_fee_table/index.htm)
As you can see from looking at the chart, the harshest fees being assessed right now are on checked bags. Minimizing your packing means less bags, and learning how to pack smart means no overweight surcharges when you get to the airport. The website http://www.onebag.com has some fantastic tips for keeping your packing (and fees) to a minimum.
4) Email blasts can be a good thing
Virtually every major airline has some kind of email alert they will send out to advise you of special offers. Among the better alerts I’ve found have been from Spirit Air, JetBlue and Southwest. These three are particularly good for running specials on a pretty regular basis. One way to consolidate all those alerts is to use the site airfarewatchdog.com This sites claim to fame is that it is the only site to include ALL major airlines, including Southwest. You can determine how often you want to receive alerts (daily, 2-3 times per week, or weekly), you can enter in your airport preferences as well as particular city to city routes you would like to keep track of.
If you want to be able to search multiple travel sites from one location, check out BookingBuddy.com – this site allows you to search sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Farecast, Priceline and others. While you don’t actually book your travel thru BookingBuddy, it’s a great ‘one-stop’ resources for doing your research.
5) BOOK NOW!!!
Seriously – finish reading this article, use the tips and book your flights NOW. Prices are going to skyrocket towards the end of the year – so if you plan on traveling later this year or early next year, I suggest you book those trips before the next round of fare hikes takes hold.
With a good strategy, some patience and a little luck you can find a great deal on airfare and save your family vacation. Remember, just because fares are going up doesn’t mean there aren’t deals to be had – we’ll just have to work a bit harder to get them than we used to.