April 8, 2009 — -- A friend of mine in Los Angeles recently picked up a fast-food meal for two and was mildly shocked at the price (he doesn't get out much) -- the tab was close to $14.
Here's something even more shocking: For the same money, he could have flown from Los Angeles to New York on JetBlue.
Crazy times call for crazy measures and that one-day promotion by JetBlue got the message out that cheap airfare is available. And you better believe the airlines want that message out there -- they need to get more bodies on their planes.
The name of the game is traffic. While some airlines are seeing a little movement in the numbers of passengers in the skies, it's generally been a grim year -- and the upcoming summer season, normally a busy season, may be a bust. To paraphrase that 1960s challenge, what if they gave an airfare sale and nobody came?
Call it, the New Fear of Flying. It's got nothing to do with white knuckles or bird strikes -- and everything to do with the economy.
I've canvassed people I know in California, Connecticut, Virginia and Utah -- and they are hesitating. Either they feel guilty about spending any money at all because of a job loss in the family -- or they fear they could be next on the layoff list.
Lori, a 30-something who lost her job in the advertising field this year, said, "The economy has totally affected my travel plans. I won't be booking anything until I find a full-time gig." She added emphatically, "It blows!"
Understood. Involuntary layoffs have reached insane levels. And yet … the travel industry is falling all over itself, doing everything possible to get folks out of the house. You already know about the airlines -- it's deals, deals, deals -- and not surprisingly, JetBlue sold out all 1,800 tickets during its one-day $14 sale within hours.
But it's more than deals. Some airlines are dropping the usual 14- and 7-day advance purchase requirements, and the recent Southwest "Easter Sale" offered exceedingly cheap airfare with just a three-day advance purchase.
Out of Work? Airlines, Cruise Ships Have Safety Nets
Plus, for the first time in a long time, smaller cities are getting a break -- unlike past sales, they're now being included in the big airfare discounts. Every person counts in these tough times.
And as the late-night ads say, But Wait -- There's More! Suffering resort areas, like Orlando, are advertising airfare giveaways and specials like buy-two-or-three-nights in a hotel and get an extra night gratis.
Even ski resorts are getting into the act. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Squaw Valley has a special deal for employees recently furloughed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget cuts: buy a lift ticket that normally cost $79 -- for just $30.
Plus, travelers have some new safety nets. JetBlue -- and certain cruise lines -- are offering refunds if customers find themselves suddenly out of a job. Your airline or cruise ship doesn't have such guarantees? Then get trip insurance. And read the fine print.
So, maybe -- just maybe -- it is time to fly. But the question remains -- when is the best time to buy?
Historically, the rule of thumb to finding the cheapest airfare was begin the shopping process about three months out -- typically, when airlines would begin releasing their cheapest seats. Well, forget that. There's no such thing as "typical" these days -- and buying at the last minute does not necessarily penalize anyone.
But don't wait forever. Airlines are pragmatic -- they know their planes aren't filled -- so they're going to start cutting capacity (meaning, they'll cut seats) in the fall -- or even as early as late summer. And the more seats are cut, the more power the airlines have -- to raise prices.
How to know if you're getting a good deal? Well, an amazing deal on a cross-country flight right now would be about $230 roundtrip -- again, that's the best of the best. Pay $300 for the same flight, and that's still a good deal -- it's just not a steal. Shorter distances would be somewhat less than that.
I also tell people to look for last-minute weekend specials -- but you have to be ready to book, and fly almost immediately. If you're that flexible, you'll save big. And set some e-mail alerts for your favorite routes -- even if you're not certain you can afford to fly.
After all -- you never know when the next $14 deal is going to come along.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.