As airlines tack on more fees, saving money on airline tickets may appear to be a mere wish. But even with all the added costs of flying, there are still deals to be had; you just need to know where to look and when to travel. Researching before you book your next vacation or plane ticket can save you the added headache -- and the added costs -- of your next flight.
Travel During the Shoulder Season
Airfares are generally lower during the shoulder season -- the period of time between high and low season, says Nicole Hockin, author of TravelSmartBlog.com.
Any season can be a shoulder season, depending on your destination. Europe's high season lasts from May through September. But head to London in October and you'll enjoy fewer crowds, comfortable temperatures and cheaper airline ticket prices. The Caribbean and Mexico have great weather in late April and May, but prices for flights drop during these months as they fall after spring break and before summer vacation.
But remember to consider these caveats of traveling during the off-season: Hotels often do their renovating when there are fewer crowds, which could mean staying in a place with a lobby under construction or an obstructed view from your window. Still, the rates will drop accordingly, often between 10 percent and 20 percent. Some hotels will offer a free room upgrade during this time as well. Museums may limit their hours or even close on certain days during the nonpeak season. Make sure to check that the attractions you want to visit will be open and available before booking an airline ticket.
Make the Most of Your Days
Airlines typically release new airfare sales midweek, says Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com, an airfare search engine. Tuesdays and Wednesdays in particular tend to be the peak times to find cheap airline tickets.
While the sales often target the coming weekend and the following weekend, they are not limited to these, Chang says. To save yourself some legwork, scour travel websites and sign up for e-newsletters from travel sites that list the best deals for the week.
When booking a flight, arrange your schedule to travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, if possible. These days are generally the cheapest times to travel, Chang says. As an added bonus for Saturday travelers, airports tend to be less crowded on the weekend, which can reduce stress levels for you and your family as you move through security and head to your gate.
Research the Fees
If you'll need to check one bag (or more) on the flight, find out how much you'll be charged before purchasing the fare. Most airlines and travel sites offer this information online. To compare rates side by side, visit Airfarewatchdog.com's baggage chart, which lists baggage rates for different U.S. airlines, including fees for overweight and oversize bags.
Airline policies for checked baggage vary greatly, depending on the flight route and status, Chang says. For domestic flights, average airline fees range between $15 and $50 per checked bag; rates for international flights fluctuate more, depending on the airline and destination. To avoid reading through the fine print, Fly.com offers a baggage icon. When searching a flight, click on the baggage icon to check luggage fees before booking a ticket. The information displayed is relevant to the airline and the flight you're taking, Chang says. For example, if you search for a fare from New York to India you'll see fees related to that specific flight.
Plan to bring a pet, ask for extra legroom or eat a meal on the flight? Check out FareCompare.com's domestic airline fee chart, which lists these fees and others charged by U.S. airlines. However, it's a good idea to double-check fees on the official airline website as well, in case policies have recently changed.
Stretch Your Travel Times
If your departure and return dates are flexible, use airfare search engines to play around with various dates and land a cheap airline ticket, says Susanna Zaraysky, author of "Travel Happy, Budget Low." These search engines scour the Internet for airline fares, covering hundreds of travel sites in a matter of seconds and saving you the time of clicking through each airline site on your own. Sites such as Kayak.com will show you the fares for each day of a calendar month to help you spot the lowest price.
While some sites let you book your ticket through them, you may get extra perks by purchasing directly from the airline website, Zaraysky says. You'll often receive bonus travel miles for booking through an airline site. You'll also be eligible for refund options and other airline programs.
If you know your departing city, but are flexible as far as final destination, head to Airfarewatchdog.com. The site will send you alerts regarding deals on different destinations, Hockin says. She also recommends following your favorite airlines on Twitter. By tracking their tweets, you could snag a deal on a cheap plane ticket. Some airlines regularly tweet travel deals sales known as "Twares," which are discounts on airfares offered to the company's followers on Twitter.
When it comes to booking your ticket, bing.com's flight search offers a price prediction function that will tell you whether fares are rising, steady or dropping, with a confidence measure. For instance: Fares rising or steady, 80 percent confidence.
Follow Your Flight
Most U.S. airlines have guaranteed airfare policies that enable you to claim a refund for the difference if the price of your flight becomes available for less after you book it, says Jeff Pecor, communications director at Yapta.com, an airfare tracking service. "Not many people know the policy even exists -- nor do they bother to check the price of their ticket after purchasing it."
After booking your ticket through an airline, you can enter your flight information at Yapta. The website will track the airfare and alert you via email if you're eligible for a refund from the airline. Refunds typically come in the form of a travel voucher, which can be used to purchase more tickets through the same airline within the following 12 months.
According to Pecor, customers who book at least 60 days in advance of their flight become eligible for an airline refund about 11 percent of the time. A family of four can save quite a few dollars by going this route.
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