Airlines raised fares last week for the third time this year. While it's unclear whether the increase will stick, the hike, $4 to $10 on most round-trip flights, was led by United and quickly matched by many other carriers. The lower fare hike applies to shorter routes, the higher to longer routes.
While not every fare hike works - airlines tried to raise fares 22 times last year and succeeded only nine times - there's not much that can be done to keep airlines from trying. They raise fares because they're secure in their belief that people will still fly despite fare hikes. But when faced with a plethora of unsold seats, airlines drop prices.
In the meantime, we still need to take our business trips, our vacations and visit family and friends.
Here are four strategies you can use to get the best possible airfare:
1. It's not so much when you book as when you fly. For as long as there have been travel experts sharing travel tips, you've heard that booking early is the key to getting a great deal. A recent study found the best time to buy is six weeks in advance. And while booking as soon as you know your plans is important, how far in advance you book may not be as important as when you fly. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays tend to be the least-traveled days of the week and are therefore the cheapest days to book. Even incorporating just one of these days into your flight plans brings down the cost of the trip. There's a reason the vast majority of airfare sales offer the lowest rates on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Real-life example: I'm planning a trip to New Orleans in April. Specifically, I'd like to go the weekend of April 14. If I fly out Friday and return Sunday, the cheapest nonstop flight is $504. If I fly out Sunday and return Tuesday, the cheapest nonstop flight is $308 on what I consider a superior airline.
2. Nearby airports are your friend. Sometimes referred to as "alternate airports," they are a reasonable drive from your preferred airport. Now, reasonable means different things to different people, so know exactly how far the alternate airport is from your destination and the costs associated with getting there (gas for rental car, charter bus, public transportation, etc.). A great example of convenient alternate airports are those found near Miami. Within 20 miles of Miami International is Fort Lauderdale, and 65 miles away is West Palm Beach.
Real-life example: One of the most popular routes booked year-round is New York City to Miami. Over Easter weekend, a flight from New York to Miami is $434, but from LaGuardia to Fort Lauderdale it is $375. Depending on your final destination in the area, changing your arrival airport may be worth the $60 savings.
3. Connections are almost always cheaper (sorry but it's true). No one wants to hear it, but connecting flights are often far cheaper than direct flights. Why? Because they're less desirable. Proceed with caution here - unless the money saved is significant, it may not be worth your while. Every flight you add to your itinerary increases the odds of something going wrong - delays, lost bags.
Real-life example: I'm planning a trip to Italy in May and need to fly to Rome. The nonstop flight is $1,327. A flight with a five-hour layover in Dublin on the way there and a three-hour layover in Dublin on the way back is $992. But, I'm flying with what will then be a 7-month-old baby, so I'll need to decide if the savings are worth the inconvenience. I'm not quite ready to book yet, but at least I know the pros, cons and possible savings.
4. Early-morning flights are often less expensive. Again, this has to do with the desirability of the flight. If it leaves at 6 a.m., you have to be there by 5 a.m. at the latest. Say you're a 45-minute drive from the airport, you need to leave home by 4 a.m. if you need time to park. That means you're up at 3:30 if it's just you and far earlier if you have kids to get ready. So a 6 a.m. flight very quickly becomes a 3 a.m. wake-up call. Not fun. Again, only you know if the trade-off is worth the money saved.
Real-life example: A flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu this March is $484 roundtrip for departures at 7:45 a.m., but $729 for departures at 3:15 p.m. and 6:50 p.m. the same day. That's about a $35 per hour increase for taking that 3:15 p.m. flight. Caveat: This strategy works far better on leisure routes than business routes. A flight from say, New York City to Boston, a route popular with business travelers, may be more expensive in the morning as people fly to meetings and less expensive in the mid afternoon while those same people are still in those meetings.