Flying Cheap Isn't Hard; Flexibility Is the Ticket

You need a break.

It's time for a grand vacation, and you go to great lengths to find the best fare on a plane headed someplace warm and quiet.

You follow the rules - Super Saver air fare booked more than three weeks in advance and a Saturday night stay.

But on the plane, you sit next to an ebullient stranger who relates how he paid $200 less for his ticket and bought it three days in advance, not three weeks.

What gives? Cheaper tickets, if you know where to look.

You can always find better deals, says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares magazine in Arlington, Texas. As confusing as air fares have become, asking the right questions often brings a better fare.

"The most important question for your travel agent is: 'What is the best way to get there the cheapest,' " says Ruth Rudnick, owner of Travel Showcase near Boston.

Be flexible about where and when you fly. Fares are cheaper, she says, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

Airlines often slash fares on some routes at a certain time of day, because that's when they compete with discount carriers such as Southwest Airlines or ValuJet. So if an agent asks whether you'd rather lift off at 8:00 or 11:30, don't just go for convenience; ask which flight costs less.

Also, "flying in and out of secondary airports in most major markets can save a bundle," Mrs. Rudnick says.

A trip from San Jose, a 30-minute drive from San Francisco, to Colorado Springs, 30 minutes from Denver, can knock $200 off a San Francisco-Denver flight.

Shop around

Time spent shopping around is often time well-rewarded. Ask your travel agent or use an Internet service to check fares every day for changes. A handful of Internet services will even alert you by e-mail of upcoming discounts.

The hard part is knowing when to stop waiting and lock in your ticket. There's never any guarantee prices won't drop further, but for most people, booking the ticket as soon as a fare war erupts won't leave them feeling cheated. The only way you're likely to get better deals is at the last minute or with coupons.

Also, "you can't go wrong by calling the carriers directly," says David Stamey, of Avitas in Reston, Va. Sometimes it's your "only assurance" that your travel agent hasn't missed a bargain.

Direct calls to the airlines, or a trip to their Web sites, can be the only way to uncover last minute discounts, sold to fill up a plane.

These fares are the hardest to find, says Stamey. They sometimes don't show up in travel agents' databases and they don't last long.

They usually appear on an airline's Web site the last week before the flight. For links to most airline Web sites, check out:

Other sources for specials include your local newspaper's classified and display ads, and coupons offered to students and seniors by the airlines or as promotions with other products.

Beyond such tactics, two rules of thumb govern ticket price: how far in advance you buy the ticket, and whether you're flying for business or pleasure.

To combine good fares with advance planning, you generally have to buy the ticket at least 21 days in advance and stay over a Saturday night. Also, the cheapest tickets are usually nonrefundable.

Less traditional options

For travelers willing to make more compromises, consolidators and courier services offer even lower fares (see stories below).

Despite the skyward trend of air fares, average cost lags other consumer prices over the last 10 years, says Dean Breest, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines.

That's largely because of competition from discount airlines such as Southwest and ValuJet, industry analysts say.

"In city after city, when these discount carriers have come in, we've seen fares drop dramatically," says one Federal Aviation Administration official.

These carriers cut their costs, and your fares, by not offering meals, keeping their planes flying longer days, using electronic rather than paper tickets, and contracting out routine work.

So if your agenda includes short trips and no frills, these carriers may be your ticket.

Your Fare Share of Discounts

1. Scan newspaper ads.

2. Call your travel agent.

A. Ask for the lowest possible fare.

B. Be flexible on times and airports.

C. Ask about consolidator packages.

D. Ask about coupons.

3. Call airlines to check on specials.

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