What if you could save several hundred dollars on a round-trip ticket to Paris, London or Rome by driving 150 miles north and flying out of Vancouver International Airport instead of Seattle?
Would it be worth it to take an extra vacation day during the Thanksgiving holidays to save $180 on air fare by returning on Tuesday instead of Sunday?
If CheapTickets.com is so cheap, why is a round-trip flight between Seattle and Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines in October $10 more than the price quoted on the airline's website.
Finding the best deal on air fares is more like shopping for a custom-made suit than a one-size-fits all wardrobe. Where and how you search, when you fly, which airports you use and when and how you book can all affect the bottom-line price.
With the consolidation of online travel agencies (Expedia last year swallowed up Orbitz and Travelocity), and airline websites cluttered with confusing one-way fares and upgrade offers, shopping for the best summer and fall fares will take some savvy sleuthing. Here's my report which appeared recently in The Seattle Times.
SEARCHING FOR FLIGHTS AND FARES
As clunky and cluttered as some airline websites are, they are usually where you will find the best fare and flight combinations if you plan on flying exclusively on that airline. Otherwise, it pays to comparison shop on the online booking sites such as Expedia or Priceline and the metasearch sites such as Kayak (owned by Priceline) or Google Flights, which owns ITA Software, the company that powers most of the search sites.
While online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline sell tickets directly, the metasearch sites direct buyers to the airlines for purchase, or in some cases, to online consolidators such as Vayama.com and Airfare.com. These agencies are sometimes able to negotiate discounted fares on international flights, but with more restrictions and higher change fees than the airlines impose.
Rarely will you find an online ticket seller able to offer a discounted a fare for domestic travel. What these sites allow you to do is see a wide range of possible options that would be hard to find on your own, including piecing together two one-way fares on different airlines - "hacker Fares'' - as Kayak calls them.
"Sometimes there’s just one magic combination of dates that is hundreds less than all the others, " says George Hobica, founder of the airfare alert site Airfarewatchdog.com
If price is your priority, you'll need to filter for that, although to do so, you may have to manually switch from the default search, such as "best match'' used by Delta or "best flight" used by Google which automatically choses an itinerary that takes into account a combination of price, flight time, number of stops, etc.
A warning to Kayak users: Don't be tripped up by clicking on the listing that comes up at the very top of the search page. This is usually an ad designed to look like a search result. Hitting "view deal'' will link you to an airline or booking site which placed the ad, not necessarily the one offering the best deal.
WHAT AFFECTS PRICE
The price of an airline ticket can vary by the minute, based on computerized tracking of demand by the airlines and search sites, the day of the week you plan to fly (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the cheapest), whether or not you're flying non-stop and which airports you fly in and out of.
Flights to and from some European cities can cost substantially less out of Vancouver, B.C. than Seattle. Speculation as to why ranges from more competition among airlines in Vancouver (There are fewer international flights out of Seattle than Vancouver) to demand or a willingness to simply pay more. I Seattle flights are in particular demand by business travelers for major companies headquartered here such as Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft.
"Airlines never price fares rationally from one national market to the next," says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel newsletter JoeSentMe.com
"It's all a calculation of perception and market forces. Most airlines judge that Canadians will pay less for travel then U.S. flyers, based on demographics and other economic factors."
The decline of Canada's currency against the U.S. dollar is also having an effect, Brancatelli says. "As the looney (Canadian dollar) declines, the fare gap increases in Vancouver's favor."
Whatever the reasons, Seattleites willing to make the trek to Vancouver will benefit, assuming the savings is worth the extra time and cost of getting there.
Prices vary by the airline, with Delta showing some of the biggest fare differences. Checking the same August dates for flights to London, Delta's website showed a fare of $1,590 for a non-stop out of Seattle and a return through Amsterdam vs. $845 out of Vancouver with a stop in Seattle in both directions. A Seattle-Paris non-stop on Delta/Air France for October was $1,347 vs. $993 out of Vancouver. United Airlines' price on a round-trip Seattle-Rome flight for September was $1,251 vs. $998 from Vancouver.
No matter which airports you use, flexibility during busy periods will help, especially for holiday travel. Hit the "flexible date" key on any search site to see the difference in price for flying anywhere within six-day window of the dates you have in mind.
Example: A search for a United flight between between Seattle and Cincinnati, departing on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and returning on the Sunday after, turned up a price is $712 vs. $532 for returning on the following Tuesday.
here are other ways to save. While most airlines now offer "premium economy'' seats with more legroom, priority boarding etc. for an extra fee, more are expected to follow Delta's move to offering "basic economy" fares on some routes. The savings is usually $40-$50 off the normal price, but comes with trade-offs. Seats are not assigned until after check-in, no changes or refunds are allowed after 24 hours from booking, and earn fewer frequent flyer miles.
How likely is an airline or online travel agency likely to track your searches, and base the prices and/or itineraries you see on that information, generally tracked by "cookies,'' small files of data stored in your computer that can be accessed by web servers?
"There have been some documented cases of websites discriminating on price based on perceived preferences," says Brancatelli. "If you are concerned, start your fare searches with ITA (the software owned by Google Flights), or Kayak to see what prices really are. Once you know what prices are on offer, it's harder for an airline or an OTA (online travel agency) to upsell you."
Finding the the best deal on air fares can feel like spinning a roulette wheel. Sometimes you get lucky and find a good fare, then wait a few days to book, and poof, it's gone.
When it comes to when to buy, "There isn’t a magic day," says Hobica. "Over the last 20 years I’ve been tracking airfares, the only thing that’s predictable is the unpredictability of airline pricing managers. A sale can pop up at any moment, and last for hours or days," the reason he recommends setting up e-mail fare alerts.
If you find a good fare, you can jump on it and cancel within 24 hours with no penalty. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow you to hold an airline reservation—at the quoted fare—for at least 24 hours.
Beyond that, some airlines will let you to lock in a fare for up to up to a week. American Airlines, for instance, charges $11.89 for a 7-day lock, $9.99 for five days and $7.99 for three days. Hawaiian Air charges $8.99 for a seven-day hold and $6.99 for three days.
FLYING OUT OF VANCOUVER
If you're thinking of flying in and out of Vancouver International Airport, check the transportation options before booking your flight. Make sure you have time to arrive at the airport three hours ahead.
QuickCoach Shuttle , BoltBus and Amtrak travel between Seattle and Vancouver at varying times and prices. Park 'N Fly Vancouver offers long-term airport parking.
If booking online, be aware of whether you're paying in Canadian or U.S. dollars. Airline websites quote Canadian fares in Canadian dollars. Search sites such as Kayak and Expedia will show prices in U.S. dollars. If you're paying in Canadian currency, avoid using a credit card that carries a high foreign currency transaction fee.
*Use the online sites to comparison shop, but unless the fare is significantly lower than you'll find through the airline, you're better off purchasing your ticket directly.
"It makes it simpler to arrange seat assignments and upgrades,'' says Seattle-based Scott Mackenzie who blogs about the airline industry at Travel Codex. "It’s also much, much easier to fix canceled or delayed flights when things go wrong. "
Cross-check your searches before buying to to make sure you're seeing all the possible fares and flight times available, and keep in mind that a few airlines, notably Southwest, post fares only on their own websites.
Google Flights, says Mackenzie, "is an excellent tool for most travelers.
"The main advantages are that you can quickly compare alternate dates and even alternate destinations,'' he notes. "If Maui is too expensive, look at the map to see if Oahu or Kauai — or even Cancun — might be cheaper."
*Beware of restrictions and higher change fees on discounted fares sold by third-party consolidators. Airlines exclude some discounted fares from earning frequent flyer miles, and making changes can cost more. Vayama.com, for instance, charges a processing fee of $100 to change a ticket, in addition to airline change fees.
* Just because an online ticket seller puts the word "cheap'' in its name doesn't mean it will have the lowest fares. Example: A search for a Hawaiian Air flight to Honolulu in October showed the fare at $508 on the airline's website vs. $518 quoted by CheapTickets.com, Priceline, JustFly and other third-party sites.
*Consider using low-cost foreign airlines (EasyJet, Ryan Air, Air Asia etc.) for flights between cities in Europe or Asia, but keep in mind that most restrict the weight and size of carry-ons, and charge for checking bags and other services.