How to track down the best airfares

Chicago TribuneMarch 4, 2012 

TRAVEL ILLUS.jpg

300 dpi 3 col x 9 in / 146x229 mm / 497x778 pixels Chris Morris color illustration of a private eye detective searching the ground as he walks to a gate at an airport; for use with stories about searching for lower air fares. The Dallas Morning News 2001

KRT

  • Cool ToolsInvisibleHand: This web browser plug-in stays hidden until you're shopping for something, including airfares. Then it shows up as a bar across the top of your screen and tells you where you can get the item for less. Go to Getinvisiblehand.com.

    Bing Price Predictor: Formerly called Farecast, this tool analyzes past airfare pricing trends to predict whether the flight you're interested in will rise or fall in price, which helps answer the nagging question of whether to book now or wait for a price drop. Go to Bing.com/travel.

    Yapta: This site will track airfares before you buy, and it will help you get a refund if a fare drops after you buy. Go to Yapta.com.

When it comes to finding the best airfare, advice abounds. Problem is, some tips and conventional wisdom are questionable or downright wrong.

Here is a sampling of the bad advice out there about booking a domestic flight.

Shop on weekends: This advice is more likely to get you the worst fare than the best. Analysis by FareCompare.com, a comparison site that has studied years of fare data, shows that 3 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday is the optimal time to start shopping for airline tickets. Why?

Typically, one airline starts a sale on Monday night. Other airlines, being price copycats for competitive reasons, follow suit on Tuesday. The reservation system is updated by about 3 p.m. Tuesday, with the maximum number of cheap seats across the most number of airlines.

"The window of time to buy is between Tuesday and Thursday night, generally," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare. That's a rule of thumb. Prices vary by airline and route for all kinds of reasons.

Buy your ticket very early or at the last minute: Better prices on tickets don't start until about 31/2 months before departure, Seaney said. And prices rise dramatically starting about 14 days before departure.

"Once you hit the 14-day mark, airlines start treating you like a business customer who can afford more," Seaney said. The cheapest days to fly are generally Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. That's because those are typically slower days for the airlines. That has a bonus: You're more likely to travel in "poor man's first class" — meaning an empty middle seat and more elbow room.

Use a travel agent: Using a travel agent can be a good idea for a variety of reasons, especially for complicated or unusual trips. But for booking a domestic flight, not so much. With a basic computer search, you have access to all the same tools anyway.

Airfares are based on distance traveled: Competition drives the price of a ticket more than anything. That's why consumers can see a ticket from New York to Boston for $600 and a ticket from New York to Los Angeles for $300.

Major airlines provide the best service: Satisfaction surveys, including complaint rankings by the U.S. Department of Transportation, consistently show that most of the majors score relatively poorly. Southwest Airlines is an exception, along with several smaller discount carriers.

You're out of luck if an airfare drops after you book your ticket: Quite a few airlines will refund the difference if you ask. For some airlines, the price drop must reach a certain threshold before you're eligible.

The highest threshold is for the biggest airlines, which require a price drop of at least $150 — to cover a $150 rebooking fee — before they will issue a refund.

Typically, airlines require you to buy the ticket directly through the airline to qualify for a refund, which might be in the form of a credit or a voucher for a future flight.

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