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You CAN Get the CHEAPEST Seat on the Plane -- Every Time!
Posted by Mark Stivens

I'm the world's cheapest person, I love to travel, and I love being comfortable. Being cheap helps keep me on the road and not sitting at home wishing I was somewhere else, or envying people who do manage to get out to see the world. Being cheap is great, but I also don't want to travel as baggage -- I'll pay a little more for luxury, if that's what I'm really getting. Value is the name of the game!

On many trips the single biggest expense is airfare. Airlines charge lots of different fares for seats on the very same plane. You might be paying $50 or $500 and still getting the very same seat on the very same plane. I know I'd rather be the guy paying $50, and I'm willing to play the airlines' games to make sure that I am always the guy sitting in the cheapest seat on the plane.

Here are my top 10 proven strategies for getting the most bang out of my travel dollar.

1. Keep Your Schedule Flexible:
a) If you can travel a day earlier or later, you can often save tons of cash. Hundreds of dollars sometimes. The Saturday night stayover requirement is the most frequent tool that you can use to scarf on big savings. If you're going somewhere for a few days and are thinking of returning on Friday or Saturday, just check to see if you'd save by flying back on Sunday or Monday.
b) Sometimes, just an hour or two different will make a big difference, for example, Continental will sometimes quote me a far cheaper rate between Houston (IAH) and Monterrey (MTY) on one specific flight (leaving at 11am) than on any other flight of the day. Why? Who knows...probably because it's close in time to when the daily Aviacsa flight departs...but I'm sure not going to be the sucker who takes that 9am flight when the 11am flight is $100 cheaper.
c) Another way to save money is to see if by departing a day or two later you could make yourself fall into one of the advance-purchase categories (see strategy 2).

2. Buy in Advance:
It's no secret that the highest price seats on the plane are those sold over the 6 days prior to departure. In many case, you'll pay more for a coach seat than you would have paid for a first-class seat if you'd only bought 7 days in advance. Business travelers are always getting reamed on ticket prices because they can't or don't buy early enough. Most airlines use cutoff periods of 7, 14, or 21 days to get the best fares. Try to plan ahead when a trip is important to you or when you know you have to go at a certain time. Sometimes you gotta plan ahead to get the cheapest seat on the plane!

3. Buy at the Last Minute:
If you are totally flexible and don't care if you go or not, then you can save money by jumping on deals at the last minute when they come up. Sometimes you gotta jump to get the cheapest seat on the plane!
a) Subscribe to airlines e-mail lists: See my epinion article on this subject for email addresses and web site addresses of airlines that will send you weekly email notices of last-minute airfares. It will work best for you if you subscribe to the lists of the dominant airline in your city or region.
b) Check out the web sites that consolidate info from the airlines last minute fare deals. Several epinion subscribers have recommended www.smarterliving.com. This is a good site that has noticeably improved in recent months. They include lots of good info on getting cheap airfares including a nice list of discount airfares broken down by city.
c) Don't forget traditional media! Internet sites are great, but if you rely on them exclusively, you'll miss out on lots of great deals. For example, yesterday's Houston Chronicle has a big ad for British Airways offerring airfare from Houston to London for $169 each way. I don't see this listed on any of the usual web sites I monitor for cheap airfares -- at least not as of the time I'm writing this. By the time it gets listed, the seats will probably be sold out. You can't snooze if you want the cheapest seat on the plane!!

4. Consider Nearby Airports:
a) Some cities have several airports, and the airfare can vary dramatically between them. For example, Washington D.C. has three convenient airports: National (DCA), Dulles (IAD), and Baltimore-Washington (BWI). While there is competition at all three, Southwest has a big presence at BWI and airfares are often dramatically lower there on some routes. Similarly, AirTran offers discounted rates into IAD from Atlanta, so other airlines often lower fares into Dulles from markets served by AirTran. In New York -- look at fares into JFK, La Guardia, and Newark. In Chicago, look at fares in Midway as well as O'Hare. In Houston, look at fares into Hobby as well as Bush (IAH). In London, consider Gatwick, not just Heathrow.
b) Sometimes it's worth driving a little, or switching to a bus for an hour or so. For example, I'm going to Chihuahua in a few weeks: Continental has a direct flight I can take, but the cheapest fare is $400. Aeromexico and American have flights requiring connections in Monterrey or Dallas, but they're still about $400. Too much! Fortunately, El Paso is only a couple hours from Chihuahua by bus, and I know that Noreste and several other bus lines offer $10 fares between the two cities. A quick check on Travelocity shows a Delta flight to El Paso for $117. Now that's more like it! My total transportation costs will be under $140 -- a savings of $240, just for being willing to jump on the bus for a couple hours.
I do the same thing all the time. When fares are too expensive into Washington D.C., I price Richmond -- I'm renting a car anyway, what's a couple hours of my time on the road if I can save hundreds of dollars? Sometimes you gotta work to be cheap!

5. Let Competition Work:
It's okay to have a favorite airline, but it's usually dumb to spend a lot more just out of some sense of loyalty. Dollars don't have loyalty, and neither do seats. You're buying a seat going someplace, not a share in a company, and not an in-flight meal or a similing gate agent or a logo. The general wisdom that it's a good idea to stick with one airline as much as possible so as to concentrate frequent flyer miles is generally sound as long as the fares are the same. I concentrate my miles on Continental, but they've lost at least half my business over the past year because they got beaten on fares so often. You can't play favorites to be cheap!

6. Call Your Travel Agent:
Internet services are great for promoting competition and helping you price trips, but on several occassions I've found that the best deal came not from any online service, but from the traditional travel agent down the street. They beat Expedia, they beat Travelocity, they beat Priceline, they beat CheapTickets, they beat everyone. How? Well, in lots of ways. They have options open to them that aren't listed in the big airline computer systems: they know about charter flights, tour operators, small airlines, foreign flag carriers, special competitive rates, strategies for matching fares to airlines, and lots more. If you have a good travel agent you can often get a cheaper price than is listed in any of the major reservation systems, and still fly your favorite airline and get your frequent flyer mileage (but the trick is to find that good travel agent. For example, a few weeks ago I was taking a trip into Mexico. The best fare shown by any of the online services was $398 for my itinerary. The Mexican low-fare carrier Aviacsa had an ad in the Houston Chronicle advertising my itinerary for $278. I called my travel agent to book it and she told me that she could get it so Continental would match the fare. I was skeptical because I could not get that fare to show up for me in online services, even having just checked minutes earlier. Sure enough, she did it and I flew Continental, on a better schedule, and got the frequent flyer miles plus an upgrade with my elite card! She also ensured herself of getting a chance to earn my future business (and in fact, has already booked other trips for me -- also saving me money off what I could get online). Sometimes you gotta let people help you be cheap!

7. Consider Bucket Shops:
Consolidators, as they're known in the industry, snap up unsold seats on empty flights and sell them at greatly reduced prices. You'll usually find their ads on the back pages of the travel section in larger Sunday newspapers. Some have internet sites too. Most have names like Cheap Seats or Fare Busters. Some are extensions of general travel agencies. But you gotta be careful. An article in the Houston Chronicle recently told that tale of a local bucket shop that had operated for several years, building a reputation for reliably delivering cheap airline tickets, but that had suddenly folded, leaving dozens of unhappy customers who'd paid for tickets and were left holding the bag when the owner fled the country (on tickets provided by his own agency, I'd hope). Most bucket shops are on the level, and most can save you substantial chunks of change (hundreds of dollars), especially on long international flights. For example, the British Airways fare from Houston to London that I mentioned above ($338 RT) is a great deal, but it's an everyday fare at a bucket shop. The disadvantage is that you have to worry a bit about who you're doing business with, and you don't always get much control over flight carriers and schedules (but more so than you would with virtual bucket shops, like priceline.com). Sometimes you gotta dig to be cheap!

8. Look for Alternative Airlines:
Not every airline is listed in online reservation systems. Some are too small, some too new, and some foreign carriers don't really rely on reservation systems because of cultural variations. If you read my epinion on Sun Country Airlines you'd see a perfect example of using an alternative carrier to save money. I saved over $1,000 in one short domestic trip by switching my carrier from a big mainstream carrier to a small startup. There've also been some epinions here about the new National Airline. Never heard of them? Me neither, up until a few weeks ago, but you can bet that I'll be keeping them in mind next time a carrier is quoting me highway robbery rates! I've also recently seen mention of some more new carriers just coming on the scene: look for Jet Blue out of New York (www.jetblue.com), Legend out of Dallas, Crystal out of Florida (www.crystalairways.com), and Cardinal Airlines, also out of Florida (www.cardinalairlines.com).
Another good idea is to look to foreign-flag airlines for good rates. Many of these carriers offer far better service than you've experienced with domestic carriers, and I find that almost all of them have more honest, straight-forward fare structures with fewer of the mickey-mouse fare structure games that U.S. carriers love to play. For example, I often find that latin-american carriers don't play the stupid advance purchase required game. On some routes, I've paid exactly the same fare on Aeromexico or TACA buying tickets one day in advance as I have buying them 3 weeks in advance. With airlines like Saeta, you can get a far better fare by walking up to the airline counter and buying a ticket in person than you can get by buying in advance (at least this was my experience flying them with domestic flights within Ecuador). From the east coast to Europe, look at Icelandair -- they have some of the most aggressive trans-Atlantic fares out there. Sometimes you gotta open your eyes really wide to be cheap!

Don't believe me that you can't find all the foreign carriers online? Use Expedia or Travelocity to book a TAME flight from Guayaquil to Quito. Find the Aviacsa flights from Houston to Mexico City -- oh, they most definitely go there, but you wouldn't know it from Travelocity (and although you sometimes see Aviacsa flights listed in Expedia, the rates don't show up, and you can't buy online).

9. Look for Discounts:
Okay, this probably won't help too much, but every so often you can hit the jackpot. I've gotten free companion certificates through American Express (often on airlines that I seldom fly, such as Northwest), and I've occassionally gotten similar deals for buying something or switching long distance service, etc. Also, if you've got one of those Entertainment coupon books for your city, there are usually discount offers in there. The book I've got for Houston has offers from Continental and Northwest, but they're for like 10% and don't apply in conjunction with special fares, so I pretty much ignore the deal and look for better fares. Also, there are special situations, such as bereavement fares, that might apply in your situation. Sometimes you gotta take cheapness where it comes!

10. Buy Non-Refundable Tickets:
Most of the best deals are on non-refundable, advance purchases. It should go without saying that these are going to be your best deal, but I still hear of penny-wise pound-foolish philosophies that get people buying refundable tickets. A company I used to work required all employees to buy refundable tickets because trips were often cancelled or re-scheduled. They often paid 2 or 3 times more for these tickets than for non-refundable advance purchase tickets. The policy was in effect for several years before they managed to hire a competent accountant who finally realized that only about 20% of the trips were actually being cancelled and that the policy was actually costing the company thousands of dollars. Oh well...

That's it! Ten tricks and techniques to help you be as cheap as I am. See you on the plane, you old cheapskate, you!
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