Planes are packed these days, so the last-minute deals that helped airlines fill up their planes are no longer necessary. You may come across one from time to time, but do not count on it. Instead, start shopping (not buying) early; typically, airlines start actively managing their cheapest seats about four months before departure. Look for trends, and use technology to help you see when your destination normally has the cheapest airfare available.
Don't buy too early; tickets purchased before this four month window will generally be priced at a midtier level. An exception: shopping for busy holiday times (Thanksgiving, Christmas); due to current price hikes and ever-increasing fuel surcharges, you may want to purchase these tickets earlier than usual, to lock in the price.
Bottom line: Airfare sales tend to occur early in the week. Not always, but usually. And increases tend to occur at the end of the week. Same caveat. Now, it is true that the busiest shopping day of the week for airfare is Tuesday, but there is no evidence that Tuesday is the cheapest day to buy. First of all, domestic airfares can and do change three times a day (on weekdays) and once a day on weekends. All the more reason that everyone should sign up for e-mail alerts that will follow these price changes for you, and let you know when good deals are available.
What about that myth that airlines raise prices for weekend departures? Not true. What is true is Saturday is one of the cheapest days to fly. And Sunday is one of the most expensive days to fly.
Something else to consider: Airlines follow a herd mentality. If one starts a sale, most of the others will follow; if one raises prices, the others will soon catch up.
Go to your favorite travel Web sites and see what's available: Do they have e-mail alerts, historical airfare dates, graphs of trends, information on fuel surcharges and price hikes?
Find these tools and use them. Education is key, and having the right technology to help educate yourself is vital to finding cheap airfares.
Remember, the airlines would rather you didn't find the cheap seats. They'd prefer that you bought more expensive tickets (or really expensive tickets). So they don't make it easy for you.
I know what you want: You want someone to say, "Oh, you're flying Burbank to Detroit this month? The cheapest tickets for that trip go on sale April 2."
Unfortunately, nobody can tell you that. It simply cannot be done. But if you keep in mind my insider tips and know how to use the best available technological tools, you can get a good deal. No, you may not always get the best deal; but you may get the second or third cheapest airfare and -- guess what -- you'll still be flying for less than most of the others on your plane.
Oh, and by the way, about my brutal Nordstrom's experience? There was an upside to it: I had my wife promise me that if I was ever lost at sea, she would insist the Coast Guard use the same grid search pattern she developed to scope out bargains in the store that day.
I have never again worried about being lost at sea.
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.