How to Find a Cheap Flight

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]

How to Fly Cheap

We’re in a different world of air travel in 2012. Airlines have upped the ante in the a la carte pricing and fee game, and the Department of Transportation has taken steps to reduce the volume of nefarious fare marketing. American Airlines is now bankrupt, while Malev Hungarian is almost completely out of business and Spirit Airlines is on the full offensive. To put it mildly, the airline industry is a mess.

Despite the chaos, airfare remains competitive, with sub-$300 fares still commonly available from coast to coast and a glut of competition to keep prices low. The sales are fewer and farther between through, and only the savviest of travelers are cashing in on the best tickets. So we’ve compiled the cutting edge in airfare search technology into one simple spot for readers to do their research. The product, we hope, will ultimately save you a few dollars.

1. Check out Kayak’s new search interface.

Make no mistake, Kayak was already the top choice for savvy airfare searchers prior to this year, but as of January 2012 they’ve also made some nice improvements. Most useful perhaps is the flexible searching. From the main flight page on Kayak you can now click on “My Dates are Flexible” and then “Flex month” to get an excellent snapshot of when the cheapest time to fly from point A to point B is. If, for example, you know you want to get away to San Francisco for a few days next month, you can select a starting departure date and your desired duration of travel. The tool will then search for an entire month of flights taking place over your selected duration and then identify the best window for your travel.

Another nice application that Kayak has is the Explore tool. All that you need to get started with Kayak Explore is your point of origin; the system will populate prices around the planet that meet your criteria thereafter, whether you want a beach, ski or international destination. The result is a clean little application for inspiring travel for those without a destination in mind — all while keeping a healthy budget.

2. Credit cards, points and loopholes.

2011 was the year of points and promotions, a trend well underscored by the explosive growth of The Points Guy and View from the Wing. It’s a culture of budget travel and reward points gaming that the blogs are basically selling, and each site expertly takes you through the variety of tools that the community uses. Primarily, you’ll see a lot of discussion about airline credit cards, many of which allow you to skirt various airline fees such as baggage or rebooking fees while piling on extra miles good for future travel. And though the reward can sometimes be barely worth the credit score and time invested, keeping track of your miles and gaming the system can be a fun and addictive activity.TPG and VFTW are frequently updated blogs and are meant to be digested daily, so they’re best approached with a bookmark and a lunchtime read. Keep an eye on each site and before you know it, you’ll find a promotion that suits you well.

3. The airline fee hopscotch.

There is a fee for almost everything in today’s airline industry, but a few fees hit the broadest swath of travelers so we’ll address them right here in one quick blast. Baggage fee? Pack everything into an onboard carry on. Hungry on the flight? Pack a lunch. Can’t select a seat online? Wait until you reach the airport for a free seat assignment. Want to get boozy on the flight? Bring tiny bottles of alcohol through security. (Update: Our savvy readers have informed us that it’s against FAA regulations to bring 3oz bottles onto a plane. Be careful!)

4. Find the right Tweeters and sit on their feeds.

Have you tried Twitter yet? It’s a great big waste of time for 95% of users out there, but it’s also a great tool for sharing and learning about flash airfare deals. There’s no doubt that leaving the window open and monitoring the feeds take work, but if you can follow the right people and check in at the right times then there are amazing deals to be found. It just takes a bit of patience and commitment. To get started, follow @airfarewatchdog, @johnnyjet, @NYCAviation, @gadling, @hharteveldt, @globetrotscott and our very own @grantkmartin.

5. There’s always a sale at Vayama.

The site that purports to “solve” international travel can’t do much to impact the bottom line pricing set by the airline industry — but they can toss some marketing money into the bucket. At writing, the Romance Europe special offers $40 off flights between the US and European destinations, and though it’s only limited to certain carriers, there are still a few deals on the ticker. Once February 29th and this promotion comes to a close, a new round of sales will invariably pop up at the site, so keep Vayama on your radar for international travel.

6. Defer to the Nerds.

Check out the forums at Flyertalk and Milepoint and you’ll quickly find out that managing the airfare industry is a complicated task. Between fare classes, upgrades, fuel surcharges and booking windows the process of finding the right fare can take hours of research, which is far more time than the average consumer can handle. A new tool called flightfox, however, may help change that. Using a pool of talented flight searchers, flightfox allows travelers to plug in their planned itinerary and ideal budget for travel. Freelance searchers then try to meet or beat that price, and if they can pull off the task then they earn a small reward. In the end, everyone leaves happy.

7. Return your unused tickets.

If you’d like to save a few dollars on an unused portion of your itinerary, it might be worth looking into Changeyourflight.com. The service will apparently negotiate with certain airlines to recapture some of the cost in an unused portion of your trip, resulting in a voucher that can be used for later travel. For example, if you’ve booked a round trip flight between Chicago and Detroit but want to take Amtrak home from the Motor City, you can ask Changeyourflight to try to negotiate for a portion of your ticket to be refunded in a voucher. The service is free (though it may take a cut from the voucher that the airline provides) and only limited to certain “partner” carriers, but if you have nothing to lose it’s worth checking out.

[flickr image via flyforfun]

For best airfare deals, shop six weeks before your trip

best airfare dealsA recent study of U.S. airline ticket transactions revealed that passengers get the best airfare deals if they make their purchase six weeks before their scheduled departure.

On average, prices at the six-week mark are nearly 6% below the overall average fare, reported the study, run by Airlines Reporting Corp., a technology company that handles transactions between airlines and air travel agents. Airfares begin to rise dramatically one week before the flight, peaking on the departure date.

The study factored in four years of data from almost 144 million flight ticketing transactions with origins and destinations in the United States, making its findings pretty reputable. For more budget travel tricks, this vintage Gadling post shares five things you can do right now to score cheaper plane tickets. The video below share some helpful tips too.

[via Los Angeles Times, Flickr image via Tim Snell]

Earn free frequent flyer miles by purchasing dollar coins

Rewards credit cards are a great way to earn a few percent cash back or frequent flyer miles for everyday purchases, but they’re geared against the consumer’s rate of purchase — the more you spend, the more rewards you earn.

Intrinsically this concept conflicts with the budget traveler. Sure, 2 miles for every dollar spent would be great, but few people spend enough money each month to make the miles worthwhile. If one spends 300 dollars and earns 600 miles per month, for example, it would take 41 months to save enough for a free flight on most airlines.

But a few savvy consumers have learned to game the system, all courtesy of the US mint. On their website, the mint advertises free shipping for over $500 in purchases of presidential $1 coins — at cost. This means that a user can show up at their online store, purchase $1000 worth of dollar coins on their rewards card and have them shipped to their front door for free. A quick walk to the bank puts that money back into circulation (hopefully for the payment of one’s credit card bill) and the user emerges a few miles richer. At that point, the user can repeat the cycle.

Sounds like a cash advance, right? Sort of, but mileage hounds have found that the neither the credit cards nor the IRS view it in that way, so they’re still buying dollar coins and reaping the rewards.

As to any impact on one’s credit score or the value of carrying 20lb boxes to the bank every day, the jury is still out, but for those with time and a bit of financial flexibility it seems like a great trick to earn miles.

You can read more details and extensive discussion over at Flyertalk and Milepoint.

Allegiant Airlines plans to sell tickets fluctuate with oil

jet fuel plane ticketsOne of the biggest factors that comes into the cost of your airline tickets is the price of oil. Since the market is so competitive and the products so similar, airlines operate on razor thin margins — margins that take a big hit when the price of crude goes through the roof.

This is why you hear all sorts of bellyaching from the industry when consumers lament the days of $250 transcontinental tickets. Oil has gone up dramatically over the last forty years while ticket prices haven’t matured in kind.

Allegiant Airlines, however, has a new strategy to mitigate the price of jet fuel. With their planned “variable-price” tickets, an additional fee added to your ticket will fluctuate with the price of oil. If tensions in the Middle East take off and oil prices spike? Then you pay a bit more for your ticket when you get the the airport. If the United States taps into its secret reserve and hands out oil in the streets in milk jugs? Then you get a little back when you head to the airport.

It’s genius in a way, because this way the airline can help mitigate the impact of oil on it’s revenue stream and passengers get the small slice of hope that their tickets might fall in price. It’s the perfect model for an airline based out of Las Vegas.

Scott Mayerowitz, AP writer hosted at the Seattle Times has the full details on the proposed plan. Note, the airline has not concrete plans to implement the variable priced tickets, but it’s a model that they’re heavily considering.