No question about it, airfares on some routes are higher than they were four or five years ago, although Airfarewatchdog airfare searchers frequently find hundreds of fares crisscrossing the country for $250 or less round-trip. And even though fares seem higher, let's not forget that, adjusted for inflation, most fares are actually lower than they were 10 or 20 years ago. That said, here's my best advice for making your airfare dollars go further.
1. There's no "magic" day or lead time to buy the best airfare.
A lot of airfare experts think they're clairvoyant, so they know where airfares are headed or how far in advance you should start looking for a fare. The latest myth is to buy exactly 54 days in advance. Others say buy on Tuesday at 3 p.m. or Wednesday at midnight or when the moon is full (just kidding). But airlines are unpredictable, and anyone who claims he or she knows that airfares will be lower or higher in the coming months or the coming days should trade in their crystal ball. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading, any more than we can predict the stock market. Think about it: If they really knew, they'd put every other airfare search operation out of business, and that hasn't happened.
2. So search often, over a long lead time, and pounce when there's a deal!
Fares fluctuate throughout the day, and the number of seats offered at the lowest fares also changes frequently. Or someone might be holding the only seat at the lowest fare and not book it, so it goes back into inventory—and then it will be yours. So if you don't like the fare at 10 a.m., check at 2 p.m. or the next day or the next week and pounce when the fare is affordable. It's easy to leave open the browser page where you're searching for a fare and keep on hitting the refresh.
3. Get airfare alerts by e-mail
This is perhaps the easiest way to track airfares. Many travel websites offer e-mailed airfare alerts, letting you know when fares go down, and they all have something to offer. Do a web search for "airfare alerts" and you'll see what's available. They all work a bit differently so sign up for more than one.
One thing to note: these sites use essentially the same airfare data provided by the airlines' computer systems or ITA Software (which is now owned by Google), so they won't include discounted promo code fares, and they don't include Southwest Airlines (Airfarewatchdog.com does, however, include hand-picked fares on Southwest).
4. Sign up for the airlines' e-mail feeds and frequent flier programs
Speaking of promo codes, the airlines want to develop a relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50% off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up for their e-mails.
5. Use Twitter
E-mail is great, but some of the most amazing airfare deals last only a short time (even if they're valid for travel over a long period), or you open the e-mail too late. Twitter is more immediate. Our advice? Follow every airline you're interested in, and also add @Airfarewatchdog where we tweet unusual airfare deals every day of the week and alert followers to promo codes and other airfare deals.
6. Be a flexible travel date flier
If you don't care when you go as long as the fare is low, try a flexible date search. It's getting harder to search airfares based on flexible travel dates now that many sites (Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity and Expedia among them) have eliminated their flexible date calendars. But Kayak.com still has a good one (you must register as a user to see it under Flights/more options/flex month). Another up and coming site is Adioso.com, and Google has two sites worth exploring: google.com/flights/explore and google.com/flights.
7. Search airline sites individually, but online travel agencies are still useful.
Many airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code sales mentioned above. International airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Qantas regularly offer lower fares (i.e., $100-$400 less) on their own websites compared to what you'll find on Kayak or Orbitz. And yet, you shouldn't ignore online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity, because these sites will tell you if it's cheaper flying out on one airline and back on another (United won't tell you it's cheaper to fly out on United and back on American).
8. Use Priceline for last-minute trips
If you don't have a 7-, 14-, or 21-day advance purchase window to buy your fare, your best bet is the "name your own price" feature of Priceline.com. True, you won't know the exact flight times or airline you're flying until you pay for your trip, but you can save 50% or more.
9. Use consolidators, but beware of the restrictions
Consolidators specializing in premium cabins will have some great deals, and the airlines themselves will often heavily discount their premium cabins in the summer and just before Christmas, so check the specials on their websites. Sites like Vayama.com, airfare.com and Asia.com also sometimes sell consolidator fares.
10. Consider the extra fees before you buy
If Southwest has a fare of $198 round-trip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest actually has the lowest fare because Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, whereas United would charge you an additional $165 each way for three.
11. Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare
If you're flying to a destination in Europe, you might save money by purchasing one fare from the U.S. to, say, Dublin, and another from Dublin onward on Ryanair.com (just beware of Ryanair's hefty fees. Same holds true for some destinations in Asia (fly into Singapore and catch a low cost carrier such as Airasia.com from there) and to some smaller Caribbean destinations via San Juan or the Bahamas. Even domestically, two fares are often less than one, such as the recent scenario where Dallas to Honolulu was selling for $350 round-trip with tax, but Houston/Honolulu was $800. As you're no doubt aware, you can fly Houston-Dallas for a lot less than $450! Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time between connecting flights in case one flight is delayed.
12. Use alternate airports creatively
Is the fare from Miami to London Heathrow too high? See if flying from Ft. Lauderdale to London Gatwick on Norwegian Air Shuttle is cheaper (it probably is). Heading to Tokyo? Search to Tokyo Haneda Airport as well as to the better-known Narita. Little Rock might be a better choice than Memphis or vice versa; Toronto City Island Airport might be cheaper than Toronto Pearson and so on. Look at a map and save.
13. Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down
Let's say you've found the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare for the same itinerary goes down. If you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference. But some airlines will charge you a costly "administrative" fee of $200 or more, wiping out any savings. Others will give you the entire fare difference in the form of a travel voucher without extracting a fee. All airlines used to do this but no longer. The only ones left are JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska.
George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. Airfarewatchdog features the best airfares on thousands of routes verified by a team of expert fare analysts.