May 26, 2010 -- If you like to travel and like to save money, this is the column for you.
I'm about to explain some of the elements involved in the complicated business of airfare pricing. It may sound dull, but it's not; if anything, it's kind of weird how the whole system works, but that's the way it is.
And the more you know about this system, the easier it is for you to find cheap flights every time you shop.
Seems only fair. After all, the airlines go to extraordinary lengths to get you to pay more; they know all about your shopping habits, including when you want to travel and even where you want to go, and they price their fares accordingly.
So let's level the playing field a bit, okay?
For more air travel news and insights visit Rick's blog at: http://farecompare.com
Here are the five things you should know to score cheap flights:
1. Very few seats are ever on sale -- so speed is of the essence.
Did you know that on most planes, passengers pay ten different prices for their tickets? It's true, and of course that means there are very few of the cheapest seats ever available --including those advertised in the airline's advertised airfare sales.
Which means you have to grab the good deals the moment they are available. This is getting harder and harder, because everyone is an amateur travel agent these days, meaning you have tons of competition for those cheapest seats.
The Best Airfare Deals
Plus, word of good deals spreads like lightning via Twitter and Facebook, so when you see a good deal, you have to jump.
And speaking of jumping, that brings us to…
2. Know the airline hurdles you have to clear.
To get the best of the ten different airfares on a plane, you have to follow the rules -- or "hurdles," as I call them -- and the more hurdles you clear, the cheaper the fare.
One hurdle may be a Saturday night stay, which isn't much of a problem for most vacationers (or leisure travelers), but most road warriors don't like being away from home on the weekends, which is why they pay more for business travel.
Another hurdle is the 14-day advance purchase window; if you just have to get away right this minute, chances are you will pay for your impatience with higher fares. Note that some of the low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and AirTran usually make it a little easier, with only a seven-day advance-purchase requirement.
Yet another hurdle: the dreaded blackout dates. Most sales have them, and it usually means you can't fly when you really want to, such as the dates surrounding holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you want to save, you work around these dates (or fly around them).
Best Days to Buy Airfare
3. One day stands alone as the best day to shop.
If you've been reading my column for any length of time, you probably already know the answer to this, but if not, I won't keep you dangling: the best day to shop for airfare is Tuesday. And let me get even more specific: shop on Tuesday at about 3 p.m.
Here's why: usually, when an airline wants to launch a sale, it will do so late Monday. When the other airlines see this, they immediately go into competitive mode, and begin lowering their own prices to match the first one's sale.
All the airlines that plan to join in on this "matching" will have completed the process by early Tuesday afternoon, so by 3 p.m., shoppers will have the most "good prices" to choose from.
Note: usually that original sale ends in just two or three days, and the matching fares of the other airlines will disappear by then as well, if not sooner. Remember, if all those sale prices disappear in a single day, that's it, they are gone. The airline is not going to put up a fresh supply of cheap seats to meet the demand. It just doesn't work that way.
4. Certain days (and times) are cheaper to fly than others.
Look, the airlines know they can easily sell out all the seats on planes that go to popular destinations during the most popular days of the week to travel, so they're not going to drop prices on those seats, are they? No, they are not.
But they would like to fill up the seats on the less popular days. Otherwise those seats are a total loss for them. Which is why you will find the best deals are available for flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Now, when it comes to the days everyone wants to fly -- Fridays and Sundays -- it figures that those are almost always the most expensive days to fly. Adjust your vacation schedule accordingly.
Best Days to Fly
The best time of day to fly? Well, since no one wants to get up at the crack of dawn -- you guessed it -- that's when to fly. And generally, the dinner hour is cheaper too. And always, the overnight flights.
5. Today's airfare shoppers need help to find the best deals.
This is one of the weird things about the airfare pricing system: sometimes, even if you follow all the rules, and clear all those hurdles, the airlines still might not give you the best price. Their thinking will run something like: "Maybe if we give this seat just another day or two out there in the marketplace, someone who wants it even more than you do will be willing to pay our current price. Let's see if that happens."
So, you could sit there chained to your computer, checking the prices minute by minute, waiting for a price drop -- or you could sign up for an airfare alert. But be sure these are "real time" airfare alerts that let you know the instant prices change. The sooner you know about a deal, the better chance you have of actually snagging it.
Forget Aesop; his tortoise wouldn't have a prayer of snagging a deal in today's complicated game of airfare pricing. It's you hares out there who will score -- if you keep these tips in mind.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.