Another year has passed and the airline industry is still locked in its race to the bottom of quality and service. It now costs money to add anything special to your flight, from legroom to meals to Internet to in-flight television. Need to change your tickets? There’s a fee. Want to standby for an earlier flight? There’s a fee. On some carriers there’s even a fee to store your bags in an overhead bin, and others are removing bathrooms to make room for more paying passengers. Even Southwest Airlines, the king of no-hassle flying, recently announced that they’ll start charging fees for parts of their service.
No fee should surprise the frugal traveler at this point. The industry has adapted to à la carte pricing, which targets the casual and unwary traveler, and it’s up to the informed passenger to find the best priced and fee-free tickets. The good news is that these new fees have kept base fares low – it’s just a matter of finding the cheapest tickets. Here’s how you can get started in 2013. For 2012 tips, check out last year’s still very-relevant guide.
1. Cheat On Your Metacrawler
Oh, you use Kayak? Everyone does at this point, and though it’s hands down the best tool for quickly searching the widest spectrum of airline sites, it’s not the only authority. Sites like Momondo (based in Copenhagen) and Skyscanner (based in Edinburgh) often have access to different branches of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and can sometimes display completely different prices.
Here’s a recent example. A flight I recently booked between Munich and Berlin was coming up as $650 on Kayak via Airberlin.com. But Skyscanner pulled up availability on a site called Ebookers.co.uk for a cost of $560. Total savings by switching crawlers: $90.
2. Broaden Your Flexibility
The flexible tools on Kayak, Travelocity and Orbitz are great ways to find the cheapest availability, but if you want the best bang for your buck, check out the tools on ITA Software. The search tool, which is quietly owned by Google, has one of the most powerful engines for searching a huge range of tickets. You can select the number of days that you want to be gone, for example, and ITA will search for departures every day for a month. And that’s just in novice mode. In advanced mode, you can force connections in layover cities, call out specific carriers and integrate in a whole host of constraints geared towards finding the cheapest flight. Milepoint has an excellent thread on these commands.
The one drawback? ITA won’t actually book the flight for you. It’s not too hard to take its output and carry it over to Kayak or your local travel agent, but it adds an extra step that many don’t want to take.
3. Outsource Your Flight Searching
All of the searching in the world can help you find the perfect itinerary, but when the fares aren’t dropping, there’s always another solution: outsourcing. Flightfox is a service that allows you to fill in your ideal costs and constraints and then create a contest to identify the cheapest itinerary.
So you want to go to Paris from Chicago over the second weekend of February, right? But the cheapest fare on Kayak is $792. You can plug in your ideal price (say, $600) into FlightFox and then “experts” on the site dig through the myriad search engines to find you the best price. If someone finds an itinerary that matches your goals you can award them a fee from $24.
The best part about Flightfox, though, is that you can stipulate each requirement for your ticket. And that includes searches for mileage tickets. One of my recent requests was for a one-way ticket from Europe to New York City on a One World carrier departing on the 2nd of January for 20,000 miles. I had searched high and low on aa.com and over the phone, but a Flightfox user found a ticket from Madrid for me within two hours and my vacation was complete. For $24, that service was a godsend.
4. Stay Abreast With Sale Fares and Coupon Codes
One of the biggest misconceptions about airfares is that they’re constantly moving up, often with flashy headlines like “Spirit raises fares by $10!!!” If only it were that simple.
Airlines are absurdly competitive, and often, as soon as one carrier raises or lowers its price the others will follow suit to reduce that pricing advantage. It’s that competition that keeps costs from going through the roof.
One way that carriers have been working around that, though, is by using specialized fare sales and coupon codes. Just last week, Jetblue launched a weeklong flurry of fare sales up to 80% off when using a coupon code on their site. Virgin America and Southwest often do the same thing. By dangling those codes in front of passengers they convince consumers to use only their site when booking airfare – thus freeing you from the distraction of other competition out in the market.
It’s a good idea to keep up to speed with each airline and their respective fares when shopping for tickets. You can do that by browsing their respective websites, subscribing to their twitter feeds (a good list is here) and keeping up to date with newsletters from Travelzoo and Airfare Watchdog.
5. Manage your Mileage Program
There’s a tectonic shift moving loyalty programs around in the airline industry, and this year, budget travelers stand to lose precious ground. Delta Air Lines just announced that they’re changing the scope of their mileage program to factor in annual spend in addition to miles and segments flown. If you’re the budget traveler that scrapes together just enough miles for silver status or a mileage ticket on Delta, this is the year to consider other carriers. American and United are still regarded as the best airlines in the country in terms of mileage redemptions. Pick the one that best serves your home airport and give it a try.
6. Twitter Is Still King For Breaking Fares
Last year we pointed out that Twitter is the great aggregator of cheap breaking fares. Fact of the matter is, it takes time to put together blog posts and email newsletters and many brands are looking to gain clout in social media. To that end, they’ll often tweet fares before their email blast comes out, and those precious minutes can be the difference between a booked ticket and a missed deal. As suggested last year, make sure you follow and keep close track of @airfarewatchdog, @johnnyjet, @NYCAviation, @gadling, @globetrotscott and our very own @grantkmartin for any breaking airline news and fares.
Keep in mind, as well, that good deals don’t come up every day. Watching for airfare deals is like cultivating a Bonsai tree. It takes time, patience and a little bit of luck.
[Photo credit: Flickr user flyforfun]