Five strategies for finding cheap airfares in 2009

Last year was rough for the airline industry. In response to the recession and jet fuel prices that nearly doubled between January and July, passengers saw dozens of airfare hikes, new fees for every imaginable service, not to mention major capacity cuts, three domestic airlines shutting down, and the merger of two giants, Delta and Northwest. For travelers, it was a year in which many pondered taking a staycation rather than face the cost and hassle of flying.

Is even more caution required in 2009? Here at SmarterTravel.com, we don't think so, and neither do you: A recent Smarter Travel poll shows most readers—78 percent in fact—plan to fly as much or more than in 2008. More than half of readers say they plan to book travel but are still holding out for the right deal. After reflecting on what happened last year and consulting with some of my fellow industry observers, I can tell you that while finding good air deals will be a challenge this year, there are some real opportunities for savings if you employ the following tactics.

1. Look for winter and spring sales

After experiencing a drop in demand for holiday travel, the airlines have been offering a bonanza of sales in January to win back customers. Thus far, most of the major low-cost and legacy airlines have advertised numerous good deals for travel as far out as June, even on international flights, a trend that is expected to continue for at least the next few months. Keep an eye on the SmarterTravel airfare section for the latest sales.

"It will be particularly good through winter and spring, with lower airfare prices than in 2008," says Mike Fridgen, the Vice President of Marketing and Product for Farecast. "Travelers will benefit not only from lower prices, but from less congestion at the airport, on the plane, and in their hotel."

You may be tempted to wait longer and see if prices drop further, but if you see a price you can live with now, you should book, because the deals may not last long. "If the price of jet fuel increases dramatically or there are further capacity cuts beyond what's already been planned, prices will have to reflect those conditions," says Travelocity Senior Editor Genevieve Brown.

2. Factor in the fees

Before you book that super-cheap advertised fare, factor in what extra fees you may have to pay to determine the actual cost of your air journey. This past year, many airlines added charges for first and second checked bags, greatly increased overweight baggage fees, and started charging for everything from water to blankets. You could find a $200 ticket on Airline A is actually more expensive than a $220 ticket on Airline B when you realize Airline A will charge you $40 for two checked bags while Airline B charges nothing.

USA TODAY compiled a detailed chart showing which airline fees the major domestic airlines charge to quickly assess what extras you may have pay on top of the base fare.

3. Sign Up for deal newsletters and price alerts

You can find great deals the same way we at Smarter Travel do: by signing up to receive airfare sale e-mails from the airlines and other providers. "These days, good deals are gobbled up quickly. By signing up for newsletters and alerts, consumers can make sure that they are the first to know about the latest and greatest travel deals," says Clem Bason, vice president of merchandizing for Hotwire.

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