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 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]