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]

‘Mile Runners’ are in it for the long haul

A group of frequent flier hustlers is so obsessed with wracking up miles they are willing to do absurd acts such as flying around the world in 48 hours or going through Detroit five times on a single trip just to earn freebies.

For $320, Randy Petersen accrued a marathon of 35,000 miles for the following flight sequence: YXU-DTW-ATL-SFO-JFK-DTW-ATL-SEA-YVR-MSP-DTW-NRT-LAX-DTW-MSP-YVR-DTW-YXU-DTW-MSP-YVR-DTW-JFK-NRT-ATL-MSP-YVR-MSP-DTW-YXU. That’s a roundtrip flight from London that passes through Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, Detroit (again), Atlanta (again), Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Detroit (third time), Japan, Los Angeles, Detroit (fourth time), London (again), Minneapolis (again), Vancouver (again), Detroit (fourth time), New York (again), Japan (again), Atlanta (third time), Minneapolis (third time), Japan (third time), Minneapolis (third time), Detroit (fifth time) and finally back to London.

Petersen, who co-founded the frequent flyer community MilePoint.com, seems to think the upgrades are worth hours of sitting on planes and in airports. “It’s a ratio of travel time vs. distance flown vs. cost vs. end game,” says Petersen. “A mileage runner for value always wants to accrue miles at a low cost and then redeem at a high cost.”

Is the multiple-leg jog throughout airports around the world worth perks like a priority boarding, access to airport lounges, and maybe a few free tickets? It’s a question Shira Levine examines for Fox News.

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.

MilePoint opens to the public – and gives away one free iPad 2 a day for a month

milepoint ipad 2

Last month, we mentioned the (beta) opening of new frequent flier forum MilePoint. Now all the bugs have been fixed, the board has finally opened for anyone to join.

The forum has been chugging along nicely for well over a month, and has already attracted over 8000 members who have posted over 200,000 articles – not a bad start for a brand new site.

Of course, new sites like this pop up quite regularly – so the site owners have created a very generous opening promotion by giving away one free iPad 2 every single day till the end of March.

All you have to do to be eligible for winning is sign up and make your first post. If you win, Randy Petersen will announce your name in this thread.