Tired of all these winter airfare sales? Of course you're not.
The head-spinning flurry of sales in November and December has become as addictive as caramel lattes. Although recent deals, such as $19 fares each way between
and Las Vegas and $109 between
, generally haven't applied to holiday travel, they've been great for planning quick getaways in January and beyond.
Credit the tough economy for your good fortune, said Mark Koehler, senior vice president for air for the travel website Priceline.com.
With summer fares nearly 25% higher than the previous summer's, and the economy now softening a bit, airlines have been cutting prices to stimulate buying, he said.
"A year ago, airfares were actually cheap in summer and then went up after August," Koehler said. "This year, it's just the opposite."
Barbara Messing, general manager of
, another travel website, said carriers were merely planning.
"Airlines have told us they are trying to sell more tickets at reasonable fares further out in the booking curve to avoid last-minute fire sales," she wrote in an e-mail. She also expects the sales to peter out as the holidays approach and not to return in the new year.
So you need to develop a strategy now for getting the best bargain fares.
Messing offered this Zen-like approach: "The trick is to let the deal be the inspiration and to be flexible with your travel plans to get the most mileage from your dollar."
Here are more tips:
Stay in touch:
The online world shines in terms of access to sale info — if you can manage to take it all in. Sign up with airlines, travel websites and travel newsletters to get e-mails, texts and alerts about sales and special offers, some of which expire after just one day. Become a fan on
or follow your favorite sites on
. You'll feel the love in the form of an overstuffed inbox. It's best to create a free e-mail address and use that exclusively for travel alerts.
Find the fees:
Don't buy a sale fare without asking: Are there fees that might drive up the price? Charges for checked bags,
bags and seat selection, which vary from airline to airline, can be deal-breaking culprits. Koehler offered this luggage tip: "Do your best to stay under 50 pounds and only pack what's necessary." (Fifty pounds is a common cutoff that triggers overweight-bag fees.)
Avoid date busters
: Days of the week matter. In recent sales, lowest fares have been mostly unavailable for travel on Fridays and Sundays. So plan accordingly, even if it means burning up an extra vacation day or two. Time of day also can be a factor. For example, flights leaving at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. are often cheaper.
Use third-party travel sites such as Hotwire, Kayak, Priceline, Travel-Ticker and Travelocity to compare the bargains you discover. If you don't mind getting a zillion pop-up windows, try them all. But it's usually best to bookmark one or two sites that you find easy to navigate.
Try a competitor:
When one airline puts a route on sale, others often match the price. Just because your favorite carrier didn't announce low fares doesn't mean it's not offering them.
Keep your eye on which airline is adding a route to its network. When low-cost carriers such as
come to town, it's a sure sign that other carriers will drop prices, Messing said.
If you see an airfare you like, book it. Big discounts don't seem to be on the horizon for 2011, these two experts say.
"Overall, airlines continue to show year-over-year gains in both load factor [percentage of occupied seats] and revenues, indicating that planes will remain as full or fuller in 2011 and prices will, in aggregate, push slightly higher," Messing said.
All the more reason to hone those bargain-hunting skills.