June 15, 2011 -- The number one thing would-be travelers can do that'll kill them in the wallet this year? Procrastinate. And we're all guilty of this; as that famed philosopher Anonymous once said, "If it weren't for the last minute, I wouldn't get anything done."
Nobody seems completely sure why we put off important and not-so-important tasks; we just might be wired that way, but my guess is that the "fun factor" is key. I mean, what would you rather do, perform a necessary but mildly tedious chore like searching for airfare or going to the multiplex to see if it's true that Hangover II really isn't as funny as the original? By the way, I'll show you how searching for airfare need not be a chore in the least, in #4.
That's right, I have a list for you. The sins of airfare shoppers. You'll notice that many of them have to do with our old friend, procrastination, though there is one "sin" that involves the exact opposite.
Take a look; maybe I can't make airfare shopping a heavenly experience but if you avoid these sins it will definitely be more rewarding because you will save money.
The Six Sins of Airfare Shopping (and how to avoid them)
Sin #1: Shop Too Late
What's too late? For legacy carriers, meaning the old boys network of airlines including Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways, "too late" usually means less than two weeks before travel. Most of these airlines require a 14 day advance purchase to get their cheapest airfares, although low cost airline with overlapping routes are sometimes an exception to this rule.
For low cost carriers such as AirTran, Frontier, JetBlue and Southwest, you usually have to purchase a week (seven days to be exact) before you travel or be treated as a business traveler with deep pockets.
Sin #2: Expect to Find Last Minute Deals
A few years ago, it was not only possible to get deals at the last minute, it was possible to find out-and-out bargains, and that was never more true than for Thanksgiving 2008. Back then, prices had been sky-high, more so than usual during this priciest time of the year, so people assumed they couldn't fly and didn't. That left the airlines holding the bag with too many empty seats and the great airfare price slashing commenced.
Since then, the airlines have done more slashing, but on seating capacity; so don't expect much in the way of great last minute deals again. Sure, there will always be a few here and there; and I'll show you how to grab those, shortly.
Sin #3: Assuming Last Minute "Emergency" Fares are Available
An illness or a death in the family used to be taken care of with what were called "bereavement" fares, and there are still a few (very few), but they won't save you much. For example, United has "compassion" fares that give a ten percent discount. However, one would typically book such a fare at the very last minute, and those fares can be incredibly high. For example, if you want to fly United from Dallas to New York's JFK two weeks from now (as of this writing), a roundtrip ticket will cost you a total of $436. Book it for tomorrow, and it zooms to $1,687. While I appreciate the airline's compassion, knocking 160 bucks off that fare isn't much of a help.
A better idea: look for package deals to your destination; it can be cheaper even if you don't need the hotel or car (and if you don't need them, simply don't use them). Or check out airline "last minute deals"; many carriers offer these (including United) but it's a bit of a crapshoot as to whether they'll have deals to where you need to go. Another idea: when airfare prices are this high, loyalty points are at their best redemption value, so use them or borrow some to top off your account. Finally, look at larger airports near your destination, especially if you're heading to a small town. Driving an extra hour to and from a hub can equal big savings.
Sin #4: Failure to Use Technology Tools
If you want to find a deal this summer, you must be proactive and one of the smartest things you can do is sign up for real-time airfare alerts. Many sites have these, including my own. Let this geek technology find the deals for you, and be flexible enough on your travel dates to take advantage of the savings.
And follow your airlines on Twitter; the JetBlueCheeps sale channel is especially good, but others have Twitter-only deals too. On my site, we send you all the deals from your home airport. However you want to manage it, let technology do the work for you; so much more efficient than trying to keep up with deals on your own.
Sin #5: Shop on Your Days Off
I say "days off" in the belief that most of you have Saturdays and Sundays free, which are typically the most expensive times to shop. I know you have to work during the week and you're tired when you get home but waiting until the weekend to buy airline tickets is akin to throwing your cash down the garbage disposal. Join the rest of the shoppers and save; the airlines know weekdays are when most people shop, and they typically discount form Tuesday to Thursday (this helps airlines gauge demand).
My longtime readers know the drill: Shop Tuesdays at 3pm eastern. By this time, airlines have launched sales and the competition has matched the new-and-improved prices. If you want to find a deal, this is the time to get one.
Sin #6: Shop Too Early
There is such a thing as being too eager, so you early birds out there will have to curb that impulse. Airlines don't release their best airfare prices until about 3-and-a-half months ahead of time, so if you buy too early you will pay too much.
Remember, the window is from 3-and-a-half months until two weeks before departure (or a little less if you fly a discounter). In general, though, don't be a procrastinator. It was funny when Mark Twain said, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow" but he never had to book a flight.
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.