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Taking a different route for a cheap airfare

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As fellow passengers at Los Angeles International Airport grumbled about soaring airfares, Gilda Chavez-Diaz flew home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week. The cost of the round trip? $18.

"People don't believe me," Chavez-Diaz said with a smile as she boarded a Spirit Airlines flight. The "ultra low cost" carrier offered a promotion Chavez-Diaz seized on after receiving an e-mail from the airline.

It wasn't the only deal she's found lately. In the last year, empty nesters Chavez-Diaz and her husband, Carlos, have taken six trips to locales such as the Virgin Islands and Las Vegas, never paying more than $68 each for a round-trip ticket.

With soaring fuel prices, airlines are hiking fares unlike ever before just as the peak summer travel season is set to kick off. But bargain hunters say airfare deals still abound -- they're just harder to find.

Increased competition is holding down fares on certain routes. Domestically, new entrants and added flights along the West Coast are keeping prices low. With upstarts Virgin America and JetBlue Airways expanding West Coast service, a round-trip ticket to Seattle from LAX can cost as little as $179.

International fares to Australia and some cities in Europe, including Rome and London, are falling as more foreign carriers have jumped into the fray this year.

Travelers are also relying more than ever on money-saving tricks, such as scouring last-minute online deals and trying out smaller airlines that often have cheaper fares but can't afford to advertise them. Such bargains aren't always included on airfare websites such as Orbitz and Expedia.

Some fliers are even doing the unthinkable: going where it's hot. (Think Texas in July.)

Deals "are available but it does take time to find them, and flexibility is key," said Kellie Pelletier, spokeswoman for Kayak, a travel search website, adding that old rules to finding bargains no longer apply.

"This is just a crazy summer. There are no absolutes. You have to look around, and it's really important to be flexible and look at all the dates," she said, noting that the cheapest airfare to St. Lucia from Los Angeles this summer is on the Fourth of July weekend. In years past, the holiday was among the most expensive for the route.

Of course, buyer beware: Many of the discounted fares come with stiff restrictions and penalties for changes and cancellations. Travelers who have flexible schedules and are willing to try less popular destinations or fly smaller airlines can still find extraordinary deals, according to travel experts. Last month Spirit Airlines held a 24-hour promotion offering a round-trip ticket to the Bahamas for 36 cents.

That's a far cry from many flights that are reaching record prices and are still climbing. Airlines are tacking on hundreds of dollars to some airfares to recover the expense of escalating fuel costs. Last week fuel charges on some domestic round-trip tickets climbed to $130, according to FareCompare.com, an airfare website.

Combined with government taxes and fees, the fuel charges are now higher than the base airfares on some routes. Fuel charges on international flights have climbed to as much as $400.

"With a backdrop of a slowing economy, I continue to look for a tipping point where domestic air travelers begin to significantly push back on record high airline ticket prices," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. So far it isn't happening, he said.

Travel agents said many travelers this year are not looking for the best deal to a specific place but instead are looking for any deal and, if necessary, altering their vacation destinations.

"People are going to Punta Cana [in the Dominican Republic] instead of Cancun because it's about $100 less for a 10-day package than Cancun's eight-day package," said Bill Wood, executive editor of publishing for AAA, the nation's largest motoring and travel services organization.

Online travel search service Farecast found that "Texas seems to be a good deal, if you are OK with some heat," said Nick Leahy, spokesman for Farecast.

Flights to Austin from LAX are down 28% from last year, averaging about $200 for a round-trip ticket, and San Antonio was down 12%, Leahy said.

One of the best ways to find a deal without hunting for one is to sign up for e-mail alerts from travel search websites such as Hotwire.com and SideStep or with airlines that fly to preferred destinations.

Another factor to consider: overall cost. Fares to Hawaii climbed dramatically after Aloha Airlines went out of business and took nearly 100,000 available seats a month out of the West Coast market.

Now, travel agents say they're seeing some of the lowest hotel rates in years.

"There are some surprising deals out there," said Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch, in an online research report expected to be unveiled this week. "Because fewer people are flying to Hawaii, there are significant hotel discounts."

According to the report, summer airfares are up nearly 18% on average, while hotel rates are down 26% in Maui and 17% in Oahu.

Another way to find bargains is to consider airlines that many people might not normally think fly to a destination, travel experts say. A check of airline and travel websites last week found nonstop airfares from Los Angeles to London on Air France and Air New Zealand for $200 to $300 less during the Memorial Day holiday compared with British Airways and American Airlines.

Because even the biggest travel websites don't include all the airlines that fly a particular route, check FlightStats at www.flightstats.com. It keeps track of all flights at U.S. airports, enabling users to see which airlines are flying certain routes.

On certain days, for example, Air France isn't the only airline that flies nonstop to Paris from LAX. Air Tahiti Nui also has nonstop service. Flying to Frankfurt, Germany? Consider Air India. Its nonstop flight was about $400 cheaper earlier this month for certain travel dates than Germany's flagship carrier, Lufthansa.

Chavez-Diaz, of Fort Lauderdale, says she wakes up each morning and checks for e-mail alerts because some of the best deals are limited and last only a few hours.

"Sometimes I can't believe it myself," she said. "But if you're willing to spend some time, you can find some really cheap fares."

peter.pae@latimes.com

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