If you're still going to fly, prepare to do an evening of research on the Web. Flexibility in departure and return dates yields the best bargains. Most of the travel sites now have some form of ability for you to indicate that you're flexible enough on your departure and return dates for them to check prices either side of your target date. Sometimes the resulting savings can be many hundreds of dollars.
Keep in mind that the people who run Expedia, Travelocity, etc., are getting better all the time at creating a sense of extreme urgency regarding any lower fares to get you to buy right now! Expedia, for example, will typically put a notice over a particular combination of flights at a discounted fare indicating that there are only one or two tickets left at the price. The problem is, there may well be a better price or sequence of flights on another site, including the airline's own site, so jumping for an immediate sale is a pure gamble.
You could come back later ready to buy only to find things $100 more expensive, or you could find a better combination of flights and fares. It's probably not a bad idea, though, to at least look at the other sites first. It's also very important to remember that flights flown by certain discount airlines -- especially Southwest -- will never be shown on the major third-party Web sites. To get Southwest's information -- which you should always do if flying to or from an area they serve -- you go to www.iflyswa.com For JetBlue it's www.jetblue.com.
It's not always true that you can get a better deal by using the individual airlines' sites (such as United, American, Delta, etc.,) but experienced, bargain-hunting travelers always check those sites if for no other reason than the fact that accurate information on seat selection is more likely to be available on the airline's Web pages.
One thing is very true: If you have a major problem with your flight, you'll usually get far more attentive service if you've booked directly with that airline. Third-party site customers are often treated like lepers even by airlines that rely on their business, and hotels in particular can act very ugly when you have a problem with a booking made through a third-party site.
Plus, in at least the case of one such site, have a problem and you'll be dealing with a clueless individual in New Delhi or Manila, Philippines, who will tell you that there is no supervisor available when you need one. To be fair, some major U.S. carriers such as Delta are also complicit in outsourcing what used to be known as customer service functions to offshore personnel.
Using airline Web sites can also help you ferret out more intelligent information by revealing -- through the seat maps and what's available for booking -- how full a particular flight is getting.
A half full flight only a week or less away is a thorn in the side of the yield management gurus at the airline, and they will be more likely to drop the price or create a special deal in the week before departure to fill more of those seats. If you log on and see 40 percent of the seats available for seat selection, that means this is a flight to watch.