Everything you need to know about buying airfares as cheaply as possible, in 500 words or less.

If I could tell you just one thing, it would be this: sign up for free fare alerts. Time and again, I see articles whose main point is to crown one search engine-Kayak, or Travelocity, or Momondo or whatever-as the best bet to find a low fare. But usually, the price differences in these “bake off” comparisons are small potatoes, if they exist at all, because all airfare sites pretty much use the same fare data provided by the airlines. That said, meta search engines such as Kayak and Tripadvisor will do a better job at finding the relatively few fares that the airlines sell only on their own sites.

There is no one “magic bullet” airfare search site! The only sites that perform better on international fares are those selling “consolidator” fares, but these often come with caveats and extra restrictions, such as “miss your flight and you have to buy a whole new ticket” (you get what you pay for).

The big savings come from realizing that airfares can have wild and sudden swings, like stocks on the S&P 500. You may not have time to check them hour-by-hour or day-by-day, but airfare-tracking sites do, and will alert you when a fare goes down, sometimes by hundreds of dollars, either to a level you specify or by a percentage amount.

So sign up, it’s free! Some alert systems require that you first search for a fare before they’ll offer free email alerts; others let you sign up before searching. Here are some sites that offer alerts:TripAdvisor.com

Don’t just sign up for one, because they all work a bit differently. Be aware that most don’t include Southwest Airlines fares or promo code fares (airfarewatchdog.com does, although it tracks far fewer routes than the others listed above).

And do sign up for the airlines’ frequent flyer programs and email alerts. They’ll often send out promo code and airline-site-only fare deals.

Also, if you’re searching on your own, do not forsake online travel agencies! Way too often I hear people exclaim, “I only buy directly from the airline sites.” But what if you can save $100 by flying out on Delta and back on United? Who’s going to tell you this? Delta? United? Not a chance. Travelocity, Orbitz, Cheap Tickets, Expedia and other online travel agencies are going to tell you this.

You already know that being flexible in your travel dates saves money. Problem is, most people are not flexible in their travel dates. Even so, Travelocity, Cheaptickets, and Orbitz have the best flexible date search functions (check out this helpful chart).

Is there a magic day to buy? A lot of sales pop up on Monday night and Tuesday, but the fare you’re looking for could go down at any moment, so if you just search once a week on Tuesday, you’re missing out.

Traveling at the last minute? You usually have two options: pay through the nose, or use Priceline.com or Hotwire.com. Priceline’s name your own price feature is a super way to snag a good last minute fare.

Oops, that was more than 500 words, but just by a bit. One more tip: keep your seatbelt fastened whenever you’re in your seat and you’ll enjoy your fare savings even more.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

Want more travel news? Be sure to check out Episode 2 of Gadling’s Travel Talk TV!

Think those sale airfares are cheap? Think again!

Nary a day goes by when we don’t receive another email at Gadling from an airline or travel agent trumpeting the latest sale fare to this season’s hot destination. Fares like $215 to Barcelona, $199 to London and $400 to Buenos Aires tickle our travel fancies, filling us with the dream that we can score a dirt cheap international ticket and jetset away for an action packed, budget weekend.

Click through those links to the booking page, however, and your miracle sale fares will evaporate. But where did these original, quoted prices come from? Lets take a look.

In an advertisement (ie, email) that an airline sends to you, airfares are often only quoted one way. So the $215 fare that you see to Barcelona above is actually $430. That’s not a bad price until you also note that taxes and fees aren’t included, which for any transatlantic destination is a least $100. That pushes the price up to $530.

But that’s still a good sale price, right? Maybe not. Yesterday’s Air France sale advertised fares from New York to Madrid for $239. Making the ticket round trip with fees included (say, from March 3rd to March 10th) brings the price up to $570. That same fare on British Airways: $518. Air Europa (who?): $520. What kind of a sale is this?

The lesson here is that it’s important to keep both the advertorial angle and the competition in mind when considering a sale fare. Airlines send these emails out to get your brain engaged, drag you into their site and make a sale, but a good consumer does her homework, compares prices and knows when a fare is truly outstanding.
What works
You can throw nine out of ten of those sale emails into your trash bin as soon as they reach your inbox. Instead, set a fare alert on Kayak or Orbitz for low fares between key target cities (example: New York – London for under $300) and make sure it’s set to alert you every day.

Subscribe to newsletters like Airfarewatchdog and browse the wealth of fares available at Farecompare. They both have twitter feeds that you can follow as well. Keep an eye on Flyertalk for dirt cheap “mileage run” fares if you’ve got some extra time.

And last but not least, keep your head out of the ground when you get a “sale” email from the airlines or a travel agent. If the fare seems too good to be true even though it was mass emailed to fifty thousand people, it probably is.


Take $30 off your US-Europe plane tickets today at Vayama

If you’ve been putting off the purchase of tickets to the EU recently, now is your time to strike. Airline search engine Vayama.com is offering $30 off any flight between the two continents today, softening the blow of the season’s expensive fares.

Checking a sample itinerary between Kayak and Vayama from Detroit to Stockholm, the Gadling Labs are pulling up fares of $690 and $713 respectively. Subtract $30 from Vayama’s fare, and we’ve got $683. Seven dollars saved. But hey, that $7 will buy you three espressos when you stagger off of the plane after a 8 hour redeye from JFK.

Why the fare discrepancy? Kayak pulls fares straight from the airline websites and a few other “no-fee” sites such as Orbitz and Cheaptickets (yes, we know they’re the same thing). On the other hand, Vayama is acting more like a travel agent, pulling in fares, tacking on a fee and returning results to the casual internet browser. While this gives them the flexibilty to put together complex itineraries and potentially put forth a good price, for direct itineraries like this it’s not as useful. Oh, and their site is prettier too.

Regardless, do your homework before you pull the trigger on an itinerary from Vayama. If tickets are cheaper, which they should be, book your flights before midnight tonight when the sale expires.

Trax metacrawler launches with First Class Frenzy upgrade game

The newest metacrawler in town, Trax, is wooing users with added incentive to abandon their old Kayaking ways: upgrades. The travel search engine, which is undoubtedly scrapping for market share, just launched First Class Frenzy, an online trivia game where you can answer a host of questions and virtually “move up to first class.” Winners of the online game will be entered in a drawing to win an upgrade on their next flight.

“What sort of upgrade” you ask? According to Trax knower of things Ani Custer, winners will receive one, one way, domestic upgrade good for a year on a major US carrier. One winner will be selected every month, starting on July 16th. Fair enough. If you’re not traveling on the carrier that Trax selects, you can always give away the certificate.

As far as how Trax performs as a search engine, the site has real promise. I just ran a comparison search from DTW – CDG for a week in July and Trax found a fare $75 lower (via vayama.com) than Kayak did. I’ll be sure to include it in my battery of engines next time I run a real search.

Airfarewatchdog’s 2009 tips for saving on airfare

Our friends over at Airfarewatchdog are still working hard, day and night, finding cheap tickets for America. Their grass root efforts have gained them a cult following, and these days, most people I know subscribe to their newsletter.

To help us in our daily scouring, George and the team put together a list of 10 tips for saving on airfare in 2009. With the evolving airline industry, crazy oil fluctuations and new carriers on the market, this sort of stuff is important to keep track of every year.

AFWD’s tips range from the simple, like “use flex searches” to the subtle, like using direct airline websites instead of booking engines, but each of the points is relevant, significant and important to keep in mind while doing your fare searching. Make sure you stop by and take a look at the entire list — it could save you a bundle!