Five strategies for finding cheap airfares in 2009

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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