Yes, flying is not fun these days. No one thinks "barrel of monkeys" anymore — it's more akin to a cage of crazed wolverines, both on the plane and behind the scenes.
We see the airlines fumbling around, trying to eke out a buck in a business model predicated on cheap fuel. The results — those higher ticket prices, fuel surcharges and pesky add-on fees — have most of us wondering if any "deals" still exist.
Amid all this doom and gloom, I am here to tell you there actually are air travel deals out there. You just have to recognize them when you see them.
Coming across an exceptional airfare deal used to be like finding that one, exquisite rose in a field of summer wildflowers. Now, it's more like stumbling over a dandelion in the desert. It's not as pretty as last year's crop, but it sure beats anything else out there.
And face it, we had a superb run with incredibly cheap airline tickets for years, but those days are gone (at least for the foreseeable future). An analyst recently noted that capacity cutbacks beginning this fall will take us back to 1998 levels of available seats, effectively wiping out 10 years of growth. So, we must deal with reality, and the reality is the boom years are over.
OK, no more boom … but I can still hear little explosions: the celebratory sound of "good" deals popping up — again, good — not great. But that is what we have to work with, so let's talk about how to find such deals and what frugal fliers should be aware of.
1. Don't give up. Our fascination with finding a good travel deal started when the Internet gave us the gift of quick comparison shopping: younger people have no idea how amazing it initially was to see multiple airline prices all at the same time. Once airlines let this "comparison genie" out of the bottle, finding cheap airline ticket deals was a snap.
Now it isn't quite so easy. Airlines have several years under their belts of studying our air travel shopping patterns, and they've been using that knowledge to extract more "coin" from us (and they were doing this even before the run-up in fuel prices turned the industry on its head).
The bottom line is that deals are harder to find, and the key is not giving up, even if your old "find-a-cheap-deal" tricks don't seem to be working anymore. We have old and new tricks that do work, so keep reading.
2. Use technology. Even if you're a technophobe, you have to admit the Internet can be a beautiful thing.
In pre-PC times, you would have to make, what, maybe eight calls to different airlines to find the best price? Now, a simple e-mail alert from your favorite travel Web site saves you time, which these days is almost as precious as oil. Sign up for alerts, and the alerts will do the heavy lifting for you (the sorting of airfares, airlines and departures).
3. Act decisively. Be prepared to pull the trigger and buy once you see what your technology tells you is the best price. Any discussions on when you are available for traveling and what hardships you will accept must be held in advance.
The days of being able to look for deals at work and then come home and discuss it with the family are over. No more, "Honey, do you think you could stand a 'red-eye?'" You must know ahead of time if your Honey is cool with that. And speaking of red-eyes …
4. Fly With flexibility. This is an "oldie but goodie" tip, though I'm afraid a lot of people don't quite understand what it entails.
As noted before, airlines know when and where you want to fly, and they charge accordingly. Shatter their expectations! Fly at lunch time or later in the evening — fly when no one wants to.
This is where those red-eyes come in. Naturally, no one wants to travel on an overnight flight, and that's why they're cheaper. Not many folks like to travel in the middle of the day either, because it "burns" a vacation day. That's why those seats are generally cheaper as well.
And yes, you would get more time out of your weeklong vacation if you depart Friday of the first weekend and return Sunday of the second, but you'll really save by flying Wednesday to Wednesday.
5. Quit procrastinating. It used to be, people would start shopping, oh, 30 days before they went on vacation, but that won't cut it anymore. I recommend you begin the shopping process about four months ahead of time.
You will see when sales typically occur, and your technology will alert you to the best available deals and the way prices are trending. It's like going to a fine seafood restaurant and ordering the lobster: There's no visible price, just the words "market rate." You don't want to play that game with airfare now, do you?
So yes, deals are getting harder to find, but they are out there. Unfortunately, the reality of our current economic woes dictates that the traveling public must make sacrifices: you don't get to fly any old time you like any more. So shatter expectations.
In other words, you have to give a little, in order to get a little — a little more bang for your airfare buck.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.