As you're planning your summer travels, you may be in for sticker shock: Airfares on some routes are higher than they were four or five years ago. Here are some tips for making your airfare dollars go farther.
-- There's no magic time to buy an airfare. The latest myth is to buy exactly 54 days in advance. Others say buy on Tuesday or Wednesday at midnight or when the moon is full (just kidding). But airlines are unpredictable, and anyone who claims he or she knows that airfares will be lower or higher in the coming months or days should trade in their crystal ball. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading, any more than we can predict the stock market. Think about it: If they really knew, they'd put every other airfare search operation out of business, and that hasn't happened. Search often, over a long lead time, and pounce when there's a deal.
-- Fares fluctuate throughout the day, and the number of seats offered at the lowest fares also changes frequently. Or someone might be holding the only seat at the lowest fare and not book it, so it goes back into inventory and it will be yours. If you don't like the fare at 10 a.m., check at 2 p.m. or the next day or the next week and book it when you see a good price.
-- Get airfare alerts by email. Many travel websites offer emailed airfare alerts, letting you know when fares go down, and they all have something to offer. Do a browser search for "airfare alerts" and you'll see what's available. They all work a bit differently so sign up for more than one.
-- Sign up for the airlines' email feeds and frequent-flier programs. The airlines want to develop a relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50%-off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up for their emails.
-- Use Twitter. Some of the most amazing airfare deals last only a short time (even if they're valid for travel over a long period), or you open the email too late. Twitter is more immediate. Follow the airlines you're likely to use.
-- Be a flexible travel-date flier. If you don't care when you go as long as the fare is low, try a flexible-date search. It's getting harder to search airfares based on flexible travel dates now that many sites (Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity and Expedia among them) have eliminated their flexible-date calendars. But Kayak.com still has a good one. Also see Adioso.com and Google's www.google.com/flights/explore and www.google.com/flights.
-- Search airline sites individually, but don't ignore online travel agencies. Many airlines have "private" sales, reserving their best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code sales. International airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Qantas regularly offer lower fares (as much as $100-$400 less) on their own website compared with what you'll find on Kayak or Orbitz. But the airfare sites might not disclose if it's cheaper to fly out on one airline and back on another; United, for instance, won't tell you it's cheaper to fly out on United and back on American.
-- Use Priceline for last-minute trips. If you don't have a seven-, 14-, or 21-day advance purchase window to buy your fare, your best bet is the "name your own price" feature on Priceline.com. You won't know the exact flight times or airline you're flying until you pay for your trip, but you can save 50% or more.
-- Consider the extra fees before you buy. If Southwest has a fare of $198 round trip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest has the lower fare because Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, and United would charge you an additional $165 each way for three.