Tips for air travel: How to find deals and when to book
By BETH J. HARPAZ
Oct. 25, 2017
NEW YORK (AP) — Booking air travel is stressful. How far in advance should you book? Did you get the best fare?
That anxiety is magnified this time of year as travelers finalize holiday plans and look ahead to winter getaways and spring break. In an interview with AP Travel's "Get Outta Here" podcast , AirfareWatchdog.com founder George Hobica offered some advice for finding the best deals.
FARE SEARCHES AND PRICE TRACKING
"Sign up for airfare alerts," Hobica said. "There are many website products that will give you an alert when the fare goes up or down," including AirfareWatchdog, Google Flights, Expedia, Kayak and Priceline.
Just remember not all airlines are tracked by every website. For example, Delta flights don't show up on Hopper, JetBlue no longer sells tickets on Vayama and Southwest bans third-party websites from automatically scraping its data. AirfareWatchdog includes Southwest flights by manually collecting the information.
AirfareWatchdog also specializes in spotting deals that may "only last for a few hours or maybe a day or two," Hobica said. Sign up for alerts for specific routes and you'll receive an email when prices hit reasonable levels or go on sale.
Hoping to score a $1 or $20 "mistake fare" that airlines publish by accident? Hobica says they're "rare these days" because airline computers are programmed to catch them.
HOW FAR IN ADVANCE SHOULD YOU BOOK?
"Last-minute fares are always more expensive," Hobica said.
Some studies suggest that nine to 12 weeks ahead is the best time frame for booking domestic tickets.
How about holiday fares? Should you book Thanksgiving fares in April or May?
"Definitely start looking as early as possible if you know you're going to travel over a holiday," Hobica said.
Prices are higher around the holidays because many travelers prefer the same schedule. They want to arrive in time for the meal on Thanksgiving Thursday or be back at work the first weekday after Christmas. If your schedule is flexible, you'll get a better price by staying a day or two later or leaving a day early. "Traveling on the Saturday after Thanksgiving is going to be cheaper than the Sunday after Thanksgiving," he said.
MAGIC DAY TO BOOK?
"I don't think there is a magic formula or a magic time of the week to look for a good airfare," said Hobica. "There is a myth out there that Tuesday is the best time to book airfares."
Airlines do announce sales on Tuesdays, he said, but also post sales on Fridays, sometimes unannounced, "hoping people will buy the last remaining seats on a flight."
Hobica also sometimes sees "amazing airfare sales on Saturday and Sunday" when searches by consumers tend to fall off. Sometimes the lower demand can push automated pricing down.
Does the very act of repeatedly searching for a flight nudge prices higher? Hobica says no. But you could see prices rise while you're searching if all the cheap seats get booked by others. Usually airlines limit how many seats sell at the lowest fares.
Is it better to book through airline websites?
Not necessarily. The same flight might be priced differently on different third-party sites. A search engine like BookingBuddy.com lets you compare the same flight on different websites. Sometimes an online travel agency like Expedia or Priceline will offer a lower fare than the airline because of a specially negotiated deal, Hobica said.
But if there's a problem with the flight, it might be easier to straighten out if you've booked directly with the airline.
—If fares drop after you book, you're probably stuck with the higher fare because airlines charge so much to change tickets. But there are a few exceptions. Southwest, for example, does not charge for changing tickets. And U.S. Department of Transportation rules state that passengers may "cancel a booking without penalty, for 24 hours after the reservation is made, if they make the reservation one week or more prior to a flight's departure date." That means if the price drops within 24 hours, you can rebook without penalty on flights at least a week out.
—If you're buying multiple seats on the same flight, book the trips separately for each traveler. Airlines limit how many seats are sold at the lowest fare, and if there's only one cheap seat left, you'll miss the deal if you're buying two tickets at once. But if you're flying with kids, best to keep their tickets on the same reservation as the accompanying adult in case of bumping or other issues.
—It may be cheaper to fly one way on one airline and return on another. Just remember that if your outgoing flight is canceled, you'll be stuck for the return on the other airline.
—Consider airport alternatives: Baltimore versus Washington; Newark versus Trenton, New Jersey; Boston versus Providence, Rhode Island.
—Hotel-airfare packages can be cheaper than booking flights and lodging separately. Look for deals on sites like Upside.com.
Scott Mayerowitz, AP's digital storytelling editor for business news and former airlines reporter, contributed to this story.
Listen to AP Travel's "Get Outta Here!" podcast: https://apnews.com/afs:Content:1501560002/Episode-25:-Holiday-airfares-and-secrets-to-getting-the-best-deal