Blink these days and you could miss a fare to remember. With travel-booking technology constantly shifting and airlines posting ever-changing fares to trump the competition, you have to move fast. Here's a primer on how to snare a decent airfare.
1 Go to an all-purpose travel site. The Big Three (www.orbitz.com, www.expedia.com and www.travelocity.com) still command the lion's share of attention, inasmuch you can book your flight/hotel/car in one spot. While all have exclusive Web deals not available elsewhere, some airlines aren't represented on the sites, fares can vary wildly, and the sites charge a $5 or $6 booking fee -- so consider the trio a starting point, not the finish line.
Another useful tool is ITA Software (www.itasoftware.com), which developed Orbitz's easy-to-use fare matrix. While you can't buy online, it'll direct you to where you can book and offers myriad info on different flights, including warnings such as "airport change, long layover."
2 Check an aggregator. The new wave of booking aggregators are quickly becoming the lazy bargain hunter's best friend, since they do all the work for you. Aggregators (including www.sidestep.com, www.qixo.com and www.bookingbuddy.com) scan booking sites and cull the results. They work in one of two ways: Either you download them or go to their Web sites. SideStep, which must be downloaded, allows you to plug in your dates, etc., and then scans various booking/airline sites. The SideStep Toolbar pops up on the left third of your screen and will run a concurrent search when you're on another site; when it's done, it directs you to where you can book.
The ones you don't have to download are generally much clunkier. Bookingbuddy.com, for example, lists the booking sites and then you have to click on each one individually. Qixo.com is slow, and it charges a $20 fee. Mobissimo.com quickly scans multiple booking sites; it's still in a "beta" testing mode, although it works well.
3 Check individual airline sites. Check airline sites to see if they can match the fares you've already found. You can often snag extra frequent-flier miles for booking directly with the carrier, and you'll avoid the service fees on the Big Three and some of the aggregator sites (as well as the fees charged by some airlines if you call their reservations numbers). Note that some discount carriers -- including Southwest (www.southwest.com), JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) and Independence Air (www.flyi.com) -- are not widely represented among the discounters and aggregators, if at all.
Also, sign up to receive as many airline e-deals as your spam filter will allow, as the specials are usually available for only a limited time.
4 Check Priceline and Hotwire. Priceline.com has eliminated some of the nail-biting now that it offers surprise-free flight-booking services (showing airlines and flight times along with prices). Daredevils can still bid for a flight, then discover the airline and times after payment is rendered. Check out www.biddingfortravel.com for bidding pointers. Hotwire shows you the price up front, then gives you two hours to find a better deal elsewhere. It reveals the carrier/flight times after you've forked over your credit card. Our advice: Check the Hotwire price, then try to beat it elsewhere.
5 Check other budget sites. A number of sites -- including www.smarterliving.com, www.onetravel.com and www.travelzoo.com -- are frequently updated and full of bargains. Each Wednesday, Travelzoo unleashes its Top 20 best deals, which include airfare specials, packages and hotel deals. Look for them on the site or sign up and have them e-mailed to you. The Sept. 15 list included a $58 round-trip fare from D.C. to Norfolk and a $169 last-minute fare between New York and Bermuda.
6 Consider last-minute specialists. If you absolutely, positively have to be someplace in the very near future, check out the packages at services such as Site59 (www.site59.com). Site59 offers late-breaking air/hotel combos from just a few days out to weeks in advance. While you may not need the hotel, the package price could very well beat the no-advance-purchase fares being offered elsewhere.
7 If all else fails . . . call a consolidator for complicated, costly international flights (check newspaper ads for options) or contact a travel agent. Consolidators purchase blocks of tickets and pass the discounts on to consumers. Beware that the companies come and go -- protect yourself by purchasing with a credit card. Also, some consolidators don't deal directly with the public, so you must use a travel agent.