Cheap airfare is a national obsession, especially over the holidays, when the price of airplane tickets goes sky-high with demand. Most people assume that since everyone is flying in November and December, we simply have to pay up. But that's not the case. There are still tips you can use to make sure you get discount flights during the peak Christmas and New Year's season, and many of those tricks didn't exist just two years ago.
Once we started buying our plane tickets online in the 1990s, the process was simple: comparison shop and buy the winner.
These days, the process has been enriched by new digital developments, and it can be boiled down to three steps.
1. Learn the pricing pattern
Signing up for discount emails from the major airlines won't usually be helpful during the holiday season, when fewer seats are flying empty so there is not much need to fill them at a deep discount.
But as long as you can be flexible on your travel days -- always the best way to make sure you save -- a variety of new websites use historical pricing data to try to predict what airfare prices are going to do. They're not always correct, but they're generally correct, and partnering with a computer that can see the big picture can point you toward the right day to travel, and it can even help you guess if you should wait another week to shop or snag a seat before the price rises.
Sites worth hitting are Bing.com/Travel (which has a Farecast feature that tries to predict price changes), Hotwire's TripStarter (which does something similar), and a Danish site called Momondo (which shows you a month's worth of prices so you know the best day to travel).
If you have an iPhone, FareCompare.com's app will also show you a month's worth of prices to guide you to the days with the best rates. It accesses the Orbitz.com flexible travel calendar, and prices include taxes and fees. Hotwire also has a flexible travel calendar.
Some travel experts think it's a good idea to surf the Web for your ticket at hours when business travelers are less likely to be doing it, too. That means the wee hours of the morning, especially early Wednesday and early Sunday.
Remember the rules of thumb good for any time of the year: People tend to go places for the weekend, so flying on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday is often cheaper than on other days of the week.
Consider this, too: Often, people don't want to travel on the holidays themselves, so there may be a good deal on Christmas, Thanksgiving, or New Year's Day.
2. Comparison shop and buy the winner
Once you know the right days to fly, canvass the big "aggregator" sites and search engines, which do the legwork for you and search across multiple sites and airlines with a single click. One of the best-known is Kayak.com. You can also use Momondo again, or a new favorite of mine, Hipmunk.com, which is clean and easy to decipher, and clearly exposes the flights with the shortest and longest layovers.
If you zero in on a flight on a single airline, always try searching for that flight on the airline's home website. You may avoid some extra fees that way.
3. Monitor your ticket
It's typical to have a slight feeling of dread when you click the "BUY" button because you're never sure whether the ticket's price would have descended tomorrow. There is a site that takes a little of the stress out of that. Once your ticket is purchased, register it with Yapta.com, which will keep track of price drops, should they happen. If they do, it will alert you if the drop is deep enough to surpass the airline's change fee -- and you'll get money back by changing your flight to the lower price.
The luggage issue
Another new development in the past two years: Luggage fees, which usually start around $25 for the first bag, each way and can add hundreds to your trip if you're traveling with your family. The exceptions, for which we are very grateful: Southwest and JetBlue.
The best way to avoid luggage fees will always be to not check luggage. In a previous Savings Experiment, I gave some of the world's best tips for Packing Light -- watch that video and follow the advice. (The one airline that this won't work for is Spirit Airlines, which charges a shocking $45 at the airport for each carry-on bag.)
If you have to bring gifts with you, consider buying only small ones so that they won't expand your luggage.
If that's not possible, and you have lots of stuff, there is another trick. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it may be more cost-effective to pay to check two bags up to 50 pounds ($25 and $35 each, usually) than to overstuff a single bag past the 50 pound limit, which may bring the excess fees to $100. If you do have to check a bag, arrange it ahead of time online, because almost all the airlines will give you a discount of $3 to $5 per bag, each way, if you pay before you get to the airport.
Other people swear by shipping their gifts ahead of time. UPS offers luggage boxes with handles for the purpose (the carrier brags they're even re-usable, but come on -- most boxes are), and the Postal Service has smaller flat rate Priority Mail boxes.
You still have to take the time to pack and ship them (in both directions of travel), and you have to make sure there's someone at your destination to receive them and keep them safe. If your gifts are too large or too heavy, you may not save money over a checked bag, but you are likely to save money compared to a $100 overstuffed bag.
We think nothing of splurging on watches, cars, houses, and handbags, but why pay more to simply go from Cincinnati to Denver?