Booking a Flight: An Eight-Step Plan

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By John Deiner and Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Airfares change so frequently and are available from so many sources, it's difficult to know where to start when you're looking for the Cheapest Fare Ever.

Our advice: If you go into the process content that a merely cheap fare will do, you'll save your sanity. Here's an updated primer on how to snare a decent airfare.

1. Look at historical data. A new generation of travel Web sites is giving consumers the upper hand when it comes to fares. By examining pricing history, the sites tell you if fares are heading up or down, or alert you to unusually low fares. At http://www.farecast.com/, for example, do an airfare search, and the site not only makes a prediction, but indicates how sure it is of that prediction.

Farecast also recently launched a product called Fare Guard. For $9.95, it will lock in a price for one week, but only for fares it predicts will stay stable or go down during that time. Other sites that offer fare trending include http://www.farecompare.com/, http://www.flyspy.com/ (in testing phase) and http://www.kayak.com/.

2. Check with an aggregator. Booking aggregators -- including http://www.sidestep.com/, http://www.kayak.com/ and http://www.cheapflights.com/-- scan numerous booking sites and cull the results. Most also display hotels and car rentals.

Aggregators work in one of two ways: Either you download a program or go to a Web site. SideStep works both ways. You can go directly to its site and plug in your dates, etc. In the downloaded version, the SideStep Toolbar pops up and runs a concurrent search when you're on another site; when it's done, it directs you to where you can book.

3. Go to an all-purpose travel site. The big three ( http://www.orbitz.com/, http://www.expedia.com/ and http://www.travelocity.com/) remain dominant, because you can book your flight, hotel and car in one spot. While all have exclusive Web deals, some airlines aren't represented, fares can vary wildly and the sites charge a $5 to $7 booking fee.

4. Look at individual airline sites. Go to airline sites to see whether they can match the lowest fare you've found. You can often get extra frequent-flier miles for booking directly with the carrier, and you'll avoid the service fees on some of the all-purpose and aggregator sites (as well as the fees charged by some airlines if you call their reservations numbers). Note that some discount carriers are not widely represented among the discounters and aggregators.

Sign up to receive the airline e-deals that pop up each week (usually midweek), and download such features as Southwest Airlines' Ding, which provides instant notification on your computer of special fares. And go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/travel and subscribe to the Travel section's weekly newsletter, which includes the latest airline e-fares. For late-breaking deals, including those with a short shelf life, go to the Travel section's blog at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/travellog.

5. Check Priceline and Hotwire. Though http://www.hotwire.com/ and http://www.priceline.com/ provide regular flight-booking services (showing airlines and flight times along with prices), both offer potentially money-saving twists. On Priceline, you can bid for a flight, then discover the airline and times after you pay; check http://www.biddingfortravel.com/ for bidding pointers. Hotwire shows you the price upfront, then reveals the carrier and flight times after you've forked over your credit card number.

6. Check other budget sites. A number of sites -- including http://www.cheaptickets.com/, http://www.travelzoo.com/, http://www.smartertravel.com/ and http://www.independenttraveler.com/-- are frequently updated and full of bargains.

Each Wednesday, Travelzoo unveils its Top 20 best deals, which include airfare specials, packages and hotel deals. Look for them on the site or sign up to have them e-mailed to you.

7. Consider last-minute specialists or auction sites. Check out the packages at services such as Site59 ( http://www.site59.com/), which 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. Or go to a site such as http://www.skyauction.com/, where you can bid for an airline ticket; just remember that once you buy, you're stuck with the ticket.

8. Turn off the computer . . . and contact a travel agent. Many charge fees for booking a ticket, but a good agent will know where to look for cheaper fares and can give you pointers on how to find them. Check for an agent's good standing with the American Society of Travel Agents ( http://www.travelsense.org/).


© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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