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I originally wrote this article for the September 2007 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the product links at the bottom of the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can make purchases. -Terrell


Squeezing Your Airline Pennies

Rising oil prices, declining dollar values, more passengers on smaller planes, mileage reward restrictions that require a masters in logic to figure out…what’s a budget air traveler to do? Will we let these things stop us from enjoying a fabulous vacation? Absolutely not! There are plenty of ways to find a deal and get flying.

First consider how much time you want to devote to this project. Many money saving tactics require a fairly serious investment in sweat equity. If your time is more profitably spent being, for instance, a brain surgeon or keeping the triplets from burning down the house, consider using an ingenious labor saving device: a travel agent. A good travel agent (yes, some are better than others) can get you a good deal, save you time, alert you to trip ideas you may not have considered or last minute specials. Make sure you and your agent are on the same page about budget, flexibility, travel priorities and schedule and then let them do the heavy lifting.

If you, like myself, have plenty of time and enjoy doing the research, let’s take a look at two basic strategies you can employ to save some cash.

Planning ahead If you need to take your vacation at a certain time of the year, if you want to use airline miles, or if you just like to have things settled well in advance, planning way ahead can save you a lot of money. My sister-in-law Trish just used miles earned on her credit card to book airfare to Italy for two in April of 2008 and saved $2200. Try doing that two weeks out! First, she set a firm travel schedule with the friends from Sweden they are meeting in Italy. Then, because American—the airline where she had her miles— lets you book reward travel 329 days in advance, she started working in July to reserve the flights they were most interested in. Even that early she had trouble getting the flight she wanted so she called the airline’s rewards desk where the agent helped her arrange travel on partner airlines (you can’t do that yourself but the agent can). With the extra help, they got a good flight over but on the return they had a choice of a long, multi-connection flight back or paying $600. They decided to save the money and go for the horrible connections.

Even if you’re not using miles, booking well in advance can save you money. Comparison shop by using a search engine like Kayak.com or Sidestep.com. Don’t assume Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz all have the same deals. You can find and exploit differences, but make sure you’re looking at total fares including taxes and fees at each site. Do check airline sites individually. You may find a sale fare that the airline is not offering elsewhere. Consider traveling in the off-season or shoulder season. Play with your dates. Sometimes you can get a better fare traveling midweek or on a Saturday. Traveler forums like Frommers.com’s air travel discussion board recommend that you look for fare sales on weekends, particularly Saturday. These specials are often only available for a few hours. Be sure you have a workable travel plan in mind so that you’re ready to grab that great deal when you find it.

Don’t just research a specific itinerary. Read about deals in general to get a sense of what’s being offered and where you’ll have to go to find it. If you’re interested in a particular part of the world, explore travel articles about that region from newspapers locally and on the internet. You may run across something really useful. I’ve been looking into how much it would cost me to get to South America and in the process I’ve twice run across recommendations for a website called IntraTours that specializes in consolidator fares to Latin America. I found an American Airlines flight to Buenos Aires there that was $200 under American’s own price.

One last tip on buying ahead. Some airlines will refund you the difference if a fare goes down after you purchase. Keep an eye on what they’re charging and be sure to request the refund. It doesn’t always work but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Flexible Travel If you’re fortunate enough to have a flexible schedule that allows you to fly off at a moment’s notice, you get to take advantage of a different money-saving strategy—last minute specials. Many airlines will announce a sudden deal allowing you to fly to Hawaii or London for hundreds less as long as you’re willing to go this weekend. The trick is hearing about the deal in time. The easiest way to keep up with these opportunities is to subscribe to a few newsletters or keep an eye on a site like airfarewatchdog.com. I personally have subscriptions to American and British Air’s newsletters because they fly to the places I go most often. Also watch these newsletters for other specials that can help stretch your travel budget like air/hotel combo deals. BA recently had an offer of a free London Pass (it gets you entrance to lots of London attractions) tacked on to a Seattle to London fare. That’s a $79 savings if you’re planning on doing the tourist thing.

A lot of budget fares, especially those cheap little airlines in Europe, take you to a secondary airport or make you fly early in the morning or late at night when public transportation may be scarce. Remember to factor in all the costs of getting to your final destination when comparing fares.

Flying in Comfort One of the problems with budget airfares is that they often don’t allow you to upgrade to a more comfortable section. To ensure the best possible seating in economy check seatguru.com to avoid seats that don’t recline or rows too close to the lavatory. Some airlines are now using smaller 757s on overseas routes which can make for a tight squeeze. Keep an eye on the plane type when you’re booking that cheap fare and check your reservation periodically to make sure they haven’t changed planes on you. If you’re flying domestically, don’t forget that you’ll need to provide your own pillow or blanket these days as well as something to eat so you don’t have to pay for the “onboard snack” (shudder).

A Few Items to Enhance Life on Board

Have a good flight!