NOT long ago, a savvy budget-minded traveler had only to open a weekly e-mail from the airlines to see an array of discounted fares for the coming weekend. Airlines use those Web fares, as they are known, to unload unsold seats at the last minute.
Most airlines send these alerts on Tuesdays, and they have proved popular.
"They tend to sell out very early in the week," said Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman.
In my five years of monitoring fares, the recent pickings are the slimmest I have seen. Two weeks ago, only one Web fare was offered at American Airlines out of Los Angeles (to Denver). On United, the options are almost laughable. LAX to Oxnard anyone? Or maybe Santa Ana?
"You are in the midst of a record summer travel season, and it has reduced the number of offerings," Smith said.
US Airways isn't offering Web fares right now, although it says they are gone because of efforts to coordinate its website after its merger with America West.
"Their return is imminent," said Morgan Durrant, a US Airways spokesman.
If these summer-deal doldrums are getting you down, take heart. Three websites are offering some unique approaches to airfare bargain shopping that may help you snag those ever more elusive deals.
The sites seek to answer this age-old question: To get the best deal, do you buy now or wait? Two use technology to spot trends; another uses good old manpower to search for good deals. None is a panacea, but each adds an interesting weapon in the deal shopper's arsenal.
Airfarewatchdog.com has been around the longest. It does as its name implies: A team of experts watches over fares, and when it sees a good one, it fetches and delivers it to the website.
"We're the iconoclastic airfare listing site and the non-technical one," said George Hobica, the site's creator.
Hobica has been watching airfares for nearly eight years, first for AOL travel. He and his team of four scour the Web for fares that have suddenly gone down or are lower than their historic average.
The fares are often unadvertised and may be short lived. Hobica and his team try to book a seat to ensure availability.
I took the site for a spin and found it easy to navigate, though some pages are cluttered by advertising. The site generates revenue through advertising and relationships with travel providers that provide a small fee when a customer clicks through from the site.
Airfarewatchdog.com is not an online travel agency in the sense of a Travelocity. It acts only to send customers to other sites where they can actually book a ticket. It and the others below fall into the category of a travel search engine similar to SideStep or Kayak.
When I clicked on one of the deals it had listed from Los Angeles to Bali for $699, before taxes, I could not find it via the links provided for Travelocity or Malaysia Airlines.
After I inquired, Hobica was able to demonstrate that they were indeed available on the Malaysia site but not on Travelocity. Bargain shoppers may have to do some legwork to find the deals, depending on the search capabilities of the website you are referred to. (Malaysia's is not the most flexible when it comes to searching for flights.)
Another website designed for bargain shoppers, Farecompare .com, uses computer power to track and analyze historical fare data and has a star rating system (one to four, four being best).
For example, I looked at fares from LAX to Las Vegas. (The website tracks your IP address so it knew I was in the Los Angeles region without my having to enter it -- a nice trick.) Farecompare.com provided me with an array of the lowest fares available now to next May. The $78 fare for July was a three-star deal, not surprising since summer is off-peak for Vegas.
Beneath the fares was a graph showing low fares month by month during the past year. To book a ticket, you click through to an online agency or, in most cases, the airline itself.
The newest entrant in the "should I buy now or buy later?" derby is called Farecast.com. Not only does it use computers to analyze historical airfare data, but it also makes a stab at predicting what that fare will do in the future.
"Our team identifies and tracks price volatility," said Hugh Crean, president and chief executive of Farecast.com.
He says he has hired a gang of PhDs who have come up with more than 100 indicators of price movement.
The site is still in test mode, so the starting points are limited to Boston and Seattle. (Los Angeles is "in the next wave of markets we are opening up," Crean said.)
I did a search on Boston to Los Angeles with two weeks advance. Farecast.com predicted with 80% confidence that the fare would increase by $50 or more in the next seven days. By the next day, it had actually dropped by $20.
Each of the websites has all sorts of other bells and whistles that should appeal to the geek in some consumers. But they're not the end-all. For example, only Airfarewatchdog.com includes Southwest Airlines and JetBlue fare information, which is not included in any of the systems where the others get their fare data. (Neil Bainton, Farecompare chief operating officer, said that those fares were already reflected in what their competitors were charging on those routes.)
But if you are uncertain about when to buy, all can be worth a visit; they give a consumer just a bit more info with which to make a decision.
James Gilden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.