Five Ways to Find Cheap Flights in 2011

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I'll be brutally honest: if you get on a plane this year, chances are excellent you will pay more than you did in 2010.

If you've filled your tank lately, you know what's going on: the cost of gas has zoomed, and that's true for jet fuel too. You don't have to tell the airlines; they've already launched two airfare hikes in the last month alone, and both United and Continental have slapped on new $20 roundtrip "peak travel day" surcharges for all future travel dates.

We'll see more of this kind of thing in the future. So what's the traveling public supposed to do?

Be a smart airfare shopper. Or not. Here are five ways to sabotage your chances of getting cheap flights this year; take a look -- and learn from it.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at

#1: Follow the Crowd

That's right, sabotage your chance at a cheap airfare by following the crowds to the most popular seasonal destinations. You know, the Caribbean or ski resorts in winter, or Europe at the height of the summer.

Much better would be to fly during a dead zone, which is when the airlines have trouble filling their planes; the first couple of weeks in December is a good example of a dead zone, as is much of January. That's when people are typically not flying; they've done all that during the crush of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Don't follow the crowd: prices to Europe drop at the end of August, so go in the fall when the kids are back in school and the weather is perfect; try flying in winter, too if you're a harder sort. Or try the Rockies in the summer. These locations will still be beautiful; it's just a different and cheaper experience.

#2: Be a Last Minute Shopper

Some of you know my golden rule of airfare shopping: the best time to buy domestic airline tickets is Tuesdays at 3p.m. Eastern. Let me add to that. Did you know if you shop for flights at the very last minute, your economy class ticket will approach the epic price proportions of first class fare?

Do not wait until the last minute; instead, follow these guidelines:

Buy airfare at least 14 days before travel on legacy carriers (American, Delta, etc.)

Buy airfare at least 7 days before travel on discount airlines (JetBlue, Southwest, etc.)

Exception: If you're lucky, you could see a super last-minute deal, which leads us to number three (and really, luck has little to do with it as you will see).

#3: Think You're Too Old to Tweet

Not on Twitter because you're not a kid? Big mistake. Just ask any one of the 171,000+ follows of @jetbluecheeps, for example: these are the people who find out about exclusive deals like 24 hour sales and more.

Follow the deals from your home airport: we've made that real simple by setting up Twitter "fly from" accounts for most cities such as @flyfromCHI or @flyfromLAX - so followers get deals only of interest to them.

By the way, just because you're on Twitter doesn't mean you have to tell the world what you're up to moment-by-moment in 140 characters or less (as Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and even President Obama do); you don't have to tell anyone anything. Just sign up, follow your favorite airlines, and let the deal tweets come to you.

#4: Fly Out of the Nearest Airport

Is the convenience of flying in or out of your closest airport worth a couple of hundred bucks to you? It might be; after all, passengers of smaller regional airports typically pay a hefty commuter premium. Plus, if you're traveling with the family (say, the spouse and three kids) we could be talking about an extra thousand dollars in airfare, so you just might want to rethink your itinerary.

Ask the residents of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley why they so often eschew the convenience of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank for the lesser charms of LAX: it's the savings. And my friends in Wisconsin know all too well about driving to MSP, CHI and MKE from smaller cities like Madison, Green Bay and Eau Claire, especially on international trips (and this is where it pays to have a really good friend drive you to the airport - to save on parking).

#5: Pack Like You're Moving

Does this sound familiar? My editor at FareCompare says she always packs "every attractive piece of clothing I own, but I wind up wearing the same two outfits over and over again." And yet, she keeps paying that roundtrip checked-bag fee of $50.

Remember, on most airlines, carry-on bags are free - though I recently got hit with an extra charge for my carry-on on a Hawaiian Airlines flight because it weighed over the 25-pound limit. But whatever you do, avoid overweight checked bags; on Delta, for example, a 71-pound bag will cost $350 roundtrip in overweight fees, and that's in addition to the regular checked-bag fee. Is showing off your extensive wardrobe really worth 400 bucks?

There are some things in life we have no control over; the price of oil is one of them. My advice is to eke out whatever savings you can, wherever you can. Remember my mantra: there's absolutely no reason to pay a penny more than you have to. So start the new year fresh by saving some money every time you travel.