Look around. Notice the haggard faces of your co-workers. It's the first sign of summer and a signal to start making vacation plans. The sooner you get moving, the more you can save.
Save on flights, that is.
I can't promise dirt-cheap prices because summer is like a visit from Santa. For the airlines. The jolly old elf (clad in Bermudas) brings them a lovely gift: exhausted working stiffs desperate for a change of scene and willing to pay whatever. Let me help you shave some dollars off the "whatever."
Check out the following seven ways to cut costs on flights and notice that the first steps begin with the shopping experience.
1. Don't procrastinate
You know that day you marked on your calendar for airfare shopping? Subtract a day, or better yet, subtract a week; with decent demand, fewer seats and higher oil prices, procrastination is not your friend.
2. Don't play favorites
Going to one airline's website to buy tickets is a recipe for paying too much. No, I don't care if that airline is your absolute favorite, you must compare prices. Earlier this week, I looked at flights from Los Angeles to Newark in mid-July (depart July 9/return July 16), and this is what I found:
• Airline A: America's favorite carrier charged $406 round-trip
• Airline B: This younger, hipper discounter charged just $342 round-trip (and yes, even with Airline A's famous free bag, B was still cheaper).
Look, we know airfares can and do change all the time (and if you don't, please look at this), so the prices quoted above might not be valid when you shop. But that's the point! You never know which airline will offer the best price, so you must use a comparison site.
3. Stretch your summer
Vacationing in July is kind of like flying on the Sunday after Thanksgiving; both cost too much. If you must fly then, OK. But if at all possible, stretch your definition of "summer." Try these alternative vacation periods:
• Fly until late May and sometimes through early to late June
• Fly starting in the middle of August or the last week of August (or beyond).
Prices to Europe usually take a steep jump at the end of May, while domestic prices begin to soar in early- to mid-June. Both come down significantly starting the middle or last week in August. This is truly a case of good-things-come-to-those-who-wait.
4. Follow the lessons of yoga
No, I don't do yoga (me, in lululemon?), but the best deals also come to he-who-is-most-flexible. Couple of ideas:
• Fly the cheapest days
Depart and return on a Tuesday or Wednesday (Saturday is the next cheapest day to fly). Can't manage this both ways? Just fly one of the cheaper days and you'll still reap half the savings. Another way for flexible fliers to save is with overnight or red-eyes flights.
Try breaking up your vacation time into a series of last-minute weekend trips. Most airlines offer weekend specials to fill up empty seats and you might be able to visit more fun destinations.
5. Look for destination deals
If you want to get away but you're not sure you can afford to, narrowing your sights to one of the cheaper summer destinations is a good option.
More affordable U.S. cities include family-friendly Orlando, outdoorsy Denver, the historical riches of Boston and the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area, Ft. Lauderdale's beaches (but compare flight prices to nearby Miami, too) or enjoy a touch of the Old West in either Austin or San Antonio, Texas.
If you want an international experience, find cheaper flights to Ireland's Dublin or Shannon, Spain's Barcelona or Madrid, plus Frankfurt and Zurich, and we've seen some excellent Caribbean deals, too, particularly to Nassau and San Juan.
6. Make non-stops non-starters
An easy way to save: Check the ticket prices for non-stops, then look at prices to the same destinations with a stop or two (and you do this quite easily by changing the filter on a comparison shopping site). Almost always, the non-direct flights will cost less. Sometimes, as much as 60 percent less.
7. Book one passenger at a time This trick won't always work, but when it does, you can really save some money. Say you're a party of five, but when asked to put in the "number of passengers" when booking a reservation, put "1" instead of "5." Continue checking the prices; if at some point, as you book one passenger at a time, the price suddenly jumps, bingo! You've just saved some money.
This is the result of a quirk of airline reservation systems that does not allow different prices in a single reservation. If there are one or two tickets at $100, and the next highest price is $200 - and you're booking a family of five on the same reservation, you'll pay $200 for all five tickets. Unless you book one-by-one.
Last money-saving tip: I always try to talk people into using carry-ons no matter how far they're traveling or how long they'll be away. You save on baggage fees and don't have to worry about lost luggage. I'll be using a carry-on during a trip to Spain this summer and if I can do it, you can, too.
The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.