If you love to travel but have a limited budget, one way to fly for cheap is to cash in the miles or points you get from a rewards credit card. But if you haven’t earned enough rewards to take the trip you want, there is another option: Find cheap airfares.
Despite all the information available to consumers online, however, finding bargains can be time-consuming and confusing. Steffan Ileman, who for many years ran a travel agency and airline consolidation (airline ticket wholesale) business, has written a book, What the Airlines Don’t Tell You, designed to share what he learned.
Some tips, like looking for flights on certain days of the week (it used be Tuesdays and now it is Sundays?) are hype, he says. “(Airlines) base their fares on an inventory system to maximize profits,” he says, “and it is a complex system.” In addition, he warns that some airlines are implementing “subjective” pricing where the prices you see online are based on how much they think you will pay. That makes it harder to figure out ways to save, but there are still deals to be had.
Here are three tips that can help you get the best deal possible for flights.
1. Book Your Summer Travel Now
You may be feeling overwhelmed with the all the things you need to get done during the holidays, but if you are hoping to travel overseas this summer, now is the time to start researching airfares. Be prepared to book in January if you are looking for the best deal. Wait longer and the seats available at lower fares may be gone.
Where do you find bargains? For international travel, consolidators or high-volume specialty travel agencies can be a place to go. Consolidators are high volume agencies that typically concentrate on a particular region or location and buy tickets in bulk to resell. One place to look for a consolidator? Ethnic travel agencies that serve customers from the part of the world you plan to visit. “Today these fares are generally referred to as ‘bulk fares’ since no fare is shown on the ticket, and the actual cost of the fare is a secret between the airline and the agency that issues it.” Ileman writes in his book.
2. Don’t Just Think Price
I often face a dilemma when I travel: Do I spend an extra hour and 15 minutes to drive to Tampa (and pay for parking there) for a cheaper fare? Or do I fly from my home airport of Sarasota where flights are generally a little more expensive, but the airport is only 15 minutes away? Sometimes the answer is clear: The fare out of Tampa is significantly less expensive and/or the flight schedule is more flexible. But sometimes it is more of a tossup.
That’s something to keep in mind when you are looking for flights. How much are you willing to pay for the “hassle factor” of a less convenient but less expensive flight?
As Ileman writes in his book:
My definition of the best airfare is a balanced combination of getting the lowest possible fare plus other important considerations so you can arrive at your destination safely and in the best possible shape for your pleasure or business trip. These considerations include the type of aircraft, seat configuration, number and length of connections and, of course, the airline’s track record for maintenance, safety and customer service.
3. Research Like a Pro
If you’re a very frequent traveler, or if you work for a company that books its own travel, you may want to go so far as to invest in a Global Distribution Systems (GDS) terminal. For a couple hundred bucks a month (maybe less if you are a good negotiator, Ileman says) this terminal will give you access to the same tool travel agents have: an instant look at all flights to your destination on all airlines around the world, including a complete inventory of seats, amenities and other information that can help you choose the best option. Online travel search engines available to consumers don’t even come close to the features these terminals offer, he says. With fewer travel agencies in business, the companies that license these terminals may be willing to offer attractive deals to those who want to lease them.
Again, this is not for the casual traveler, but it may be a huge time and money saver for globe trotters or road warriors. Don’t think it’s worth the money? Consider using a travel agent, especially for international trips or cruises. While airlines have stopped paying commissions on US domestic flights, that is not the case everywhere in the world. That means the agent may be able to help you find the right itinerary at the right price, and you won’t have to pay a booking fee.
No matter how you decide to find cheap airfare, you can double dip, so to speak, if you charge that purchase to a credit card that earns travel rewards. Always check whether your purchase will be considered a “foreign transaction;” and, if so, use a card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. Sometimes purchases made online in the US are considered overseas purchases because the merchant is based in another country. And remember, top rewards cards usually require an excellent credit score, so stay on top of your credit if you’re planning to apply. You can see two of your credit scores for free at Credit.com.
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