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How to Find the Best Airfares in a Travel Jungle

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0116homespunweb.jpgRISMEDIA, Jan. 16, 2008-(MCT)-What’s your trick for finding low airfares? Do you scour the online discount fare finders first? Book Web-only specials directly from a carrier’s site well in advance? Or gamble by naming your price for extra savings through Priceline.com?

With airfares rising as carriers grapple with sky-high fuel prices, bargain hunters have even more incentive to search for deals online.

Prices for domestic tickets are the highest since FareCompare.com began tracking them over three years ago, said Rick Seaney, the company’s CEO.

“You have to be more pro-active about when you’re going to fly,” he said. “There’s really not many last-minute deals anymore.”

As legacy airlines continue to cut capacity, in many cases replacing large planes with regional jets, demand for the shrinking number of available seats is driving fares up — a trend that will continue this year, according to an American Express forecast. Even discount carriers, which have grown exponentially in recent years, have scaled back growth.

So do your homework.

Among the maze of discount airfare search sites that have sprouted on the Internet, a smart first stop is Farecast.com, which helps travelers gauge the best time to buy. Unlike standard travel sites, Farecast.com plugs historic pricing data into models developed by a computer scientist to predict whether fares to your destination will rise or fall. It is accurate just under 75% of the time, according to a recent audit performed for the company.

You can sign up for e-mail alerts and then pounce on any fare drop — which often lasts less than 48 hours, Farecast said.

Kayak.com is another top airfare aggregator, which means it searches under one roof hundreds of travel sites, including traditional discount providers such as Expedia.com, Orbitz.com or Cheaptickets.com. You’ll find Kayak is one of the most useful tools out there. And it’s merging with rival SideStep.com, another fancy “meta-search” discount provider.

While online consolidators like Expedia let you directly purchase tickets from them, Kayak and SideStep only ferret out the best rates for you. But both are fee-free, user-friendly and connect you straight to your chosen airline or discount site posting the cheapest fares.

“You get an idea of what fares are out there,” airline travel expert Terry Trippler said of these aggregators. “When you get what you consider is a fair price, then buy it.”

Travelers flying out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport shouldn’t forget that Southwest Airlines is king there. More than half of all BWI passengers fly Southwest, yet the discount carrier doesn’t list its fares on any sites but its own.

Southwest, which has 172 daily departures from BWI, just released its schedule through August 3. If you want to book Southwest for summer travel, remember — it’s first come, first served to get the best Web-only fares.

You can still wager to name your own price for round-trip flights auctioned off through Priceline.com. But you can’t choose the airline or departure times, and nonstop trips aren’t guaranteed. (Priceline dropped its $5 booking fee in November.)

Flexible travel dates also can mean savings.

For most airlines, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the slowest days, so they’re the best days to fly if you want to lock in low fares, said Tom Parsons, founder of BestFares.com. Travel on Fridays and Sundays or Monday mornings — which many of us have to do — and you’ll pay more.

“If you don’t have to fly when the families are traveling, you can walk away with the best bargains,” Parsons advised. “Just be flexible, flexible, flexible.”

Also, know when to search airlines’ fares, said FareCompare.com’s Seaney.

Airlines file updates of their fare schedules three times a day: 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays and at 5 p.m. on weekends, Seaney said. If you’re shopping for tickets, book them before Thursday evening, when many fare increases go into effect for the ensuing week, he said.

Last-minute tickets tend to be least expensive Wednesday mornings, according to Consumer Reports. That’s when airlines try to fill unsold seats on flights for the next week to 10 days.

Longtime consolidator Bestfares.com, which negotiates with airlines and directly sells tickets for them, offers such spur-of-the- moment getaway packages that can be booked just hours and up to three weeks before you depart, Parsons said. Members who pay the travel agency’s $60 annual fee receive extra savings. And Parsons said his site is less opaque than Priceline, because it allows you to choose your flight times and airline.

Heading somewhere warm for a spring break? Buy your tickets now. Prices will go up as more seats for popular destinations are booked. Most of the deals to Florida destinations have already been gobbled up, Parsons said.

Come February and March, be on the lookout for early-bird specials to Europe. With the new “open skies” agreement signed between the U.S. and Europe kicking in March 28, carriers should add more trans-Atlantic flights to their schedules.

Of course it’s cheapest to fly to Europe during winter, in the off-season.

One trick if you want to go to multiple destinations: get a bargain fare for the trans-Atlantic leg, then use European discount airlines to travel within the continent. Flycheapo.com tracks deals from low-cost carriers there. Seaney’s Web site, FareCompare.com, is also known for locating some of the best international deals.

Leisure travelers should be able to continue to lock-in deals in 2008, paid for by steeper increases for business travelers with more discretionary income, Parsons said.

“It’s the business travelers we have to thank because they’re going to subsidize our cheaper tickets,” he said.

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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