We at the Travel section receive no question more regularly or more urgently than this one, usually offered in a low, defeated moan: How can I get a low air fare?
Others will lie to you. Others will soliloquize about why the question is so difficult, why the airline oligopoly behaves the way it does, how real-time database management and instantaneous electronic communications make airline seats a "fungible" (fungible!) commodity, yada yada yada.
We will not do that. At least not here. We will simply tell you--here, now and for as long as it remains true--how to quit complaining, sit down and find an air fare that's at least close to as low as you can go. We use the following method all the time ourselves.
No, it isn't the best advice for every situation, and if you have a lot more time than money on your hands you can certainly do a little better. But if you're headed to one of the top 60 or so global destinations, don't have complicated travel requirements and seek a pretty low coach fare, it'll work. Yes, our methods require a computer and Web access. This usually requires no more of an investment than a trip to a local library that provides Web access. If you don't want to do that, well, call a travel agent.
(If you have not established accounts, with sign-on names and passwords, with Preview Travel, Expedia and Travelocity, you may want to do so first. Write the passwords down. You can perform most of the steps below without having an account, but if you go beyond fare-surfing you will need to register eventually. Creating accounts now can make the process a lot easier later.)
All that said, here's our not-simple-but-workable five-step method:
1. Go to www.previewtravel.com and click on Farefinder (it's under "Shopping Resources"). The screen will ask you to choose which airport you are departing from. Start with BWI. If the place you are going to is among the 55 domestic and 40 international destinations listed, select it and hit "Click here to see your fares." When the page of fares pops up, print it out or write the information down. Then repeat this process, choosing Reagan National (DCA) and Dulles International (IAD) as your departure airports. Sure, you can insist on departing from just two or even one of the airports, but you are less likely to get the best deal. Hey, you're the one who said you wanted a low fare.
Note A: Preview's Farefinder culls from a database of current published fares. Though these fares may well be available, they may carry conditions you can't or won't abide. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. So far, we're just fact-finding.
Note B: If you're just cruising for low fares to anyplace, or several possible destinations, choose a departure airport but not a destination city, click and you'll get a rundown on low fares to all 95 destinations Preview tracks. It'll also flag fares 10 percent lower than recent averages.
2. Now go to www.expedia.com and click on Fare Compare. Pick a departure airport, pick a destination (or, again, don't, and see what's cheap in lots of places) and click. Again, print the results and repeat for all three area airports.
Note C: Expedia covers fewer destinations, 63 total, and mixes international and domestic in the same list. If your destination isn't listed by Expedia, skip to Step 3.
Note D: Expedia reports fares that its own service has quoted to customers looking up those routes in recent days and hours. You'll see a range of fares, each with a different set of strings attached. Since these are mere quotes, it's possible some fares have never been purchased at the quoted prices. It flags fares 15 percent below average.
Step 3. Now take your printouts or notes, and compare Preview's low fares (from each airport) with Expedia's range of fares (ditto). This should give you a good idea of what a good low fare, and a range of possible fares, is. If you see a fare that's lower than you expected, go back to either Preview or Expedia, generate the fare list using the same low-fare tools, and then click on the fare itself. Both services do a good job from here of making it easy to key in your date/time/passenger information and checking to see if the fare is available. There is a chance you may snag this low fare right now. (Of course, there is a chance you may win big in Keno at the bar tonight, too, but we digress.)
If the service doesn't yield the listed low fare--and forgive us if we're not shocked when it doesn't--go to Step 4.
Step 4. Now go to www.travelocity.com. Don't click on "Book your roundtrip flight now." Don't click on Travelocity Best Fare Finder (at least not from this page). Do click on Find/Book a Flight. (Here you'll be prompted to log into the system with a password.)
You'll be prompted with a form that asks you to choose Travelocity Best Fare Finder (we know, it's the same thing we told you not to click on from the home page, but we didn't design the site). Choose that, and fill in the rest of the form (don't bother with the dates). Travelocity then performs one of online travel's greatest miracles: It finds the lowest fare (in its system, at least) and shows you, on a calendar, the dates when that fare is available.
Note E: This tool--called "the holy grail of online travel planning by The Washington Post" (hey, wait, that's us!)--works only for coach seats to destinations in the United States, Canada and some Caribbean islands.
Armed with the data from the other services, you'll now know whether the fare Travelocity upchucks really is low. If it is, go ahead and try to book it on Travelocity. If that fails . . .
Step 5. Pick up the phone and call the airlines whose low fare has been quoted by Travelocity or, earlier, by Preview or Expedia. Tell the agent about the fares you've found online and ask whether and how they are available. Often the agents will say they can't find those fares. Sometimes they'll actually help you find them. Usually they'll say they can do almost as well if you change planes in Pittsburgh and leave at 8 p.m., etc., etc.
If you're really masochistic, you can ask the phone agent to hold the lowest phone quote for 24 hours, and then try to beat that price by entering your airports and dates into any or all of the services' regular flight booking tools. Then take your best fare, book it however you want, and go get some sleep. Or . . .
Bonus Steps for the frugal, the sleepless and the mad:
* Put a "hold" on any low fare you see, go to www.priceline.com, and place a bid 30 percent lower than your lowest quote. You may find a ticket at this low-low price, but you will not be able to pick your airline or your time of travel. You may not get frequent-flier miles. You also may have to accept an alternate airport. You may have to make a connection in an odd place. We think facing these indignities entitles you to a 30 percent discount. Be aware that once you make a Priceline bid, you're committed to purchase. You can't say "no, thanks."
* Go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on Travel on the left side of the screen, and then on the Travel home page look in the left-hand column, under Travel Toolbox. One item listed is Airfare Consolidators. Click on that, and you'll see a story we did providing information on agencies that sell tickets, usually highly restricted ones, at deep discounts. Scan the lists of national and international firms, find one or more specializing in the destination you're interested in, and call to see if they offer a lower fare, with restrictions you can bear.
* If you're flying domestically, go to www.southwest.com and see if there's a cheap Southwest flight to your destination (the low-fare carrier, operating out of Baltimore, now reaches 54 U.S. cities). For reasons nobody can explain, Southwest flights, usually among the lowest-priced available, are sometimes not generated by online agencies.