5 Ways to Fly Cheaper

March 4, 2012

Deals are out there, but travel experts say flexibility is key when looking for discount air fares

By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Fly cheap while you still can. The money-losing airline industry is raising fares and adding fees as it struggles with record-high fuel prices.

Meanwhile, the weak economy has forced Americans to cut back on costs. Many are opting for “staycations” by choosing not to travel when they have time off.

But experts say there are still plenty of travel deals for those who want or need to get somewhere. “Everyone’s saying the fares are going up, but there are still many, many, many cheap tickets,” says George Hobica, creator of the travel Web site airfarewatchdog.com.

We asked Hobica and Candy Harrington, editor of Emerging Horizons, a magazine on accessible travel, for some tips on how to find them. The bottom line: You can get a cheap fare, but you’re going to need to be very flexible.

1. Fly during the slowest days of the week

Tuesday and Wednesday are the slowest flying days of the week for business travel so demand is low, and so are the fares.

“The Monday and Friday flights are more expensive as many business travelers depart on Monday morning and return Friday afternoon,” says Harrington. “The best deals are usually found on mid-week mid-day departures. Just ask yourself what flight would be the most unattractive to a business traveler and pick that one.”

2. Fly during the slowest time of the year

Travelers who are serious about seeking cheap fares should travel only during the slowest time of year, says Hobica. That rules out holidays, as well as spring, summer and winter.

What’s left? Fall. Hobica recommends traveling anytime between Labor Day and Thanksgiving for the best deals.

3. Fly to popular destinations at unpopular times

If you must travel during the summer, seek out destinations that are popular during the winter, says Hobica. Northerners should consider summering in Florida to take advantage of discount flights. But if Orlando in August fails to impress, budget-conscious jetsetters might prefer a Colorado ski town in the off-season.

Harrington suggests being completely flexible about the destination, based on the fare. “Check out the airline Web sites, and see what destinations they have on sale, then build your vacation around that destination,” she says.

4. Buy during the cheapest times of the day

Airfares change three times a day as airlines periodically lower prices to fill up flights, and the early bird gets the worm, according to Hobica. “Early morning is the time to buy.” he says, recommending that flyers check fares every five hours to try and snag a deal.

On the weekend, the best time to check is early Saturday morning and again at 5 p.m., when the industry is most aggressively trying to fill seats, he says.

5. Buy a travel package, even if you don’t need it

Travel sites are brimming with vacation packages offering cut-rate hotel stays and car rentals. But if you’re the type to skip over these packages without a glance, then maybe you should give them a closer look, says Hobica.

The packages are sometimes cheaper than the airfare alone, he says, especially for last -minute sales, where the airline is just trying to fill seats. “They’re super bargains,” he says. “Even if you don’t need the rental car, you could just not pick it up, because the airfare is so cheap.”

In the drive to reduce costs, airlines will be bidding bon voyage to many of their discount flights, analysts say. Hobica believes cheap airfares will become increasingly hard to find, so enjoy them while you still can.

“It’s getting worse, as all these airlines are cutting back on all these routes,” he says. “The airlines are finally getting price religion.”

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