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.
Not only will you find out about general sales, you may also gain access to exclusive subscriber-only sales. "Sign up for every airline's newsletters and frequent flier programs, and reap the rewards of promo code fares," says George Hobica, founder of Smarter Travel's sister-site Airfarewatchdog.com. "These are the real bargains now as airlines attempt to drive traffic to their websites."
Besides sale and promo code e-mails, you can also register for customized e-mails from sites that monitor prices on specific routes and alert you to pricing trends. These sites may help you decide the best time to buy fares. In my opinion, Farecast's alert service is the most reliable such tool out there, although it doesn't work for some smaller airports.
4. Target destinations with lower demand
Several U.S. destinations that rely heavily on tourists as opposed to business travelers have taken big hits recently, and some travel providers have responded to the drop in demand by lowering prices. "Travelers should absolutely look for destinations that may be hurting for visitors," says Orbitz Travel Insider Jeanenne Diefendorf. "Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Orlando are three hot destinations that have had incredible deals over the last several months, and travelers should put these spots at the top of their list when researching affordable vacations. You will find significant deals in these destinations, not only on airfare and hotel, but also car rentals, restaurants, and even entertainment and dining. "
While you can, in general, find good deals to hurting tourist destinations like Vegas, Orlando, and Hawaii, be sure to do your homework to make sure you're actually getting the best price possible. Compare prices from different providers and different airports, be flexible with your travel dates, and don't forget to factor in possible savings from hotel, car rental, and package deals.
5. Think beyond airfare
It's great to find cheap airfares, but in order to achieve maximum savings you need to look at your vacation as a whole and see where else you can find discounts. "Flight fixation can cause travelers to miss out on the bargains they can get on the other aspects of their trip," says Brown. "Hotel deals are so plentiful right now, that's where you'll find the best values."
While airlines can cut flights to address dropping demand, hotels can't cut rooms, and so in many cases they are forced to offer much bigger price cuts. With hotel occupancy rates down around the world, big discounts are showing up from all kinds of properties, from chain hotels to luxury resorts.
You should also look into packages combining the airfare and hotel components for potential savings. "Booking air and hotel together is probably the best-kept secret in the travel industry, and one of the easiest ways to save money," says Expedia Spokeswoman Amanda Hoffman. "On average, travelers save more than $200 when booking air and hotel together." All of the big online travel sellers including Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, and Travelocity sell airfare and hotel packages as do the airlines, but don't forget to check prices from sites that specialize in vacation packages, such as Go-today.com and Pleasant Holidays. Visit the SmarterTravel vacation section for a comparison of the lowest-priced packages to a variety of popular cities.
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