It's not hard to get a fare deal these days, even with the surge in the cost of jet fuel and the ever-growing list of airlines in bankruptcy. You just have to work at it. Here's a primer on how to snare a decent airfare.
1Go to an all-purpose travel site. The Big Three (www.orbitz.com, www.expedia.com and www.travelocity.com) remain the dominant trio, since 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 to $7 booking fee. Sign up for Travelocity's Fare Watcher feature, which tracks fares to five destinations of your choosing; when the fare goes up or down, you receive an e-mail alert.
Another useful tool is ITA Software (www.itasoftware.com). While you can't buy online, it'll direct you to where you can book and offers myriad info on different flights, including such warnings as "long layover."
2 Check an aggregator. Booking aggregators -- including www.sidestep.com, www.kayak.com and www.cheapflights.com -- scan numerous booking sites and cull the results. Most also display hotel and car rentals.
Aggregators work in one of two ways: Either you download them or go to their Web sites. SideStep works both ways. You can go directly to its Web site and plug in your dates, etc. In the downloaded version, the SideStep Toolbar pops up on the left third of your screen and runs a concurrent search when you're on another site; when it's done, it directs you to where you can book.
3 Look at individual airline sites. Go to airline sites to see if they can match the lowest fare you've found. You can often snare 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's "Ding," which provides instaneous notification on your computer of special fares.
Go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel and subscribe to the Travel section's weekly newsletter, which includes the latest airline e-fares.
4 Check Priceline and Hotwire. Though Hotwire.com and 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 still bid for a flight, then discover the airline and times after you pay; check www.biddingfortravel.com for bidding pointers. Hotwire works a little differently: It shows you the price up front, then reveals the carrier/flight times after you've forked over your credit card (it does give you helpful hints like "not a redeye" when listing fares with the veiled flights).
5 Check other budget sites. A number of sites -- including www.cheaptickets.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. 21 deals, for example, listed a six-night, three-city trip to Italy -- flying out of New York or Newark and including airfare, lodging, breakfasts and train transportation between cities -- for $699 per person double, plus taxes.
6 Consider last-minute specialists or auction sites. Check out the packages at services such as Site59 (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 SkyAuction.com (www.skyauction.com), in which you can bid for an airline ticket -- just remember that once you buy, you're stuck with the ticket.
7 Check with a consolidator. For complicated, costly international flights, consider using a consolidator, which purchases blocks of tickets and passes the discounts on to consumers. Many don't deal directly with the public, so you'll have to book through discounters or retail travel agents. Check www.moffits.com, a good online resource geared toward consolidators and travel agents who work with them; registration is free, and you can search its database. Or try an online consolidator such as www.1800flyeurope.com, which specializes in Europe. Beware that consolidators come and go -- protect yourself by purchasing with a credit card.
8 If all else fails . . . let someone else do the work for you and contact a travel agent. Remember that 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 it. Check for an agent's good standing with the American Society of Travel Agents (www.travelsense.org).