Cheaper Than Eating Out: A Cross-Country Airline Ticket

A friend of mine in Los Angeles recently picked up a fast-food meal for two and was mildly shocked at the price (he doesn't get out much) -- the tab was close to $14.

Here's something even more shocking: For the same money, he could have flown from Los Angeles to New York on JetBlue.

Crazy times call for crazy measures and that one-day promotion by JetBlue got the message out that cheap airfare is available. And you better believe the airlines want that message out there -- they need to get more bodies on their planes.

The name of the game is traffic. While some airlines are seeing a little movement in the numbers of passengers in the skies, it's generally been a grim year -- and the upcoming summer season, normally a busy season, may be a bust. To paraphrase that 1960s challenge, what if they gave an airfare sale and nobody came?

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Call it, the New Fear of Flying. It's got nothing to do with white knuckles or bird strikes -- and everything to do with the economy.

I've canvassed people I know in California, Connecticut, Virginia and Utah -- and they are hesitating. Either they feel guilty about spending any money at all because of a job loss in the family -- or they fear they could be next on the layoff list.

Lori, a 30-something who lost her job in the advertising field this year, said, "The economy has totally affected my travel plans. I won't be booking anything until I find a full-time gig." She added emphatically, "It blows!"

Understood. Involuntary layoffs have reached insane levels. And yet … the travel industry is falling all over itself, doing everything possible to get folks out of the house. You already know about the airlines -- it's deals, deals, deals -- and not surprisingly, JetBlue sold out all 1,800 tickets during its one-day $14 sale within hours.

But it's more than deals. Some airlines are dropping the usual 14- and 7-day advance purchase requirements, and the recent Southwest "Easter Sale" offered exceedingly cheap airfare with just a three-day advance purchase.

Out of Work? Airlines, Cruise Ships Have Safety Nets

Plus, for the first time in a long time, smaller cities are getting a break -- unlike past sales, they're now being included in the big airfare discounts. Every person counts in these tough times.

And as the late-night ads say, But Wait -- There's More! Suffering resort areas, like Orlando, are advertising airfare giveaways and specials like buy-two-or-three-nights in a hotel and get an extra night gratis.

Even ski resorts are getting into the act. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Squaw Valley has a special deal for employees recently furloughed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget cuts: buy a lift ticket that normally cost $79 -- for just $30.

Plus, travelers have some new safety nets. JetBlue -- and certain cruise lines -- are offering refunds if customers find themselves suddenly out of a job. Your airline or cruise ship doesn't have such guarantees? Then get trip insurance. And read the fine print.

So, maybe -- just maybe -- it is time to fly. But the question remains -- when is the best time to buy?

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