In the first installment of Airfare 101, I discussed the basics of searching for and comparing airfare from multiple providers. This time, I'll focus on one of the most affordable ways of saving money on travel: using Priceline and Hotwire.
Lesson #1: Know Your Options
Booking airfare without knowing what time you'll fly or which airline you'll be flying is an intimidating thought for many travelers, but it can also be a great way to save money on airfare. This type of retailer is called an "opaque" provider because the prices, departure and arrival times, and/or airlines are hidden from the buyer until the sale is final.
The two major opaque sites, Hotwire and Priceline, offer customers some of the lowest prices available by not telling potential flyers some details until after they've agreed to purchase.
By allowing their airline partners to maintain anonymity during the purchase process, sites like Hotwire and Priceline can sometimes offer prices that are well below the published prices. This is because airlines need to fill unsold seats but don't want to promote prices that will undercut their own pricing structure.
Before deciding to book, make sure you are the type of traveler who will benefit from booking with an opaque seller. For instance, you must be flexible with your departure and arrival times, since you won't find out those exact details until after you purchase your ticket. Be sure you won't need to change your itinerary or cancel your trip entirely, as itineraries booked on opaque sites cannot be changed or refunded. Travelers who book opaque flights cannot earn frequent flyer miles for said flights, nor reserve seat assignments in advance.
If price is the most important factor in your decision, however, then an opaque site might be for you. Solo travelers or couples traveling together will often benefit more from using an opaque site than people traveling in large groups, because airlines are more likely to have one or two free seats left over than a group of seats.
Lesson #2: Comparing Fares is Still Very Important
While the opaque airfares available on Hotwire and Priceline are advertised well below fares available through the airlines themselves or through other online travel providers, you still must verify that for yourself. After all, the restrictions associated with opaque flights aren't worth the hassle if you could have booked the same flight (or a cheaper one) using another website.
As always, shopping around and being informed about all of your options is the single most important factor in ensuring that you get the best price.
Lesson #3: Using Hotwire
On Hotwire, you can choose between Limited Rate fares and regular fares. The Limited Rate fares are Hotwire's opaque fares, displayed in red. Using Hotwire's Flexible Dates Search is an easy way to find the cheapest fares, both Limited Rate and regular, over any 30-day period.
Select a fare, enter your personal information and credit card number, and after you complete your purchase, you'll see the complete trip itinerary. Hotwire works with U.S. airlines including AirTran, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, Midwest, Northwest, United, and US Airways, and international carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic, so you can be assured that your flight will be on one of the carriers listed on the site and not some sketchy fly-by-night airline.
On domestic flights, Hotwire allows customers to specify whether or not the flight will be a red-eye (a flight that leaves late at night and arrives the next morning, or leaves in the early morning and arrives the same day) or whether you prefer "normal" travel times. Red-eye flights are often less expensive.
Lesson #4: Naming Your Own Price
Priceline offers two different options for booking airfare. The company is most famous for is its name your own price feature that allows customers to bid for rock-bottom prices on airline tickets (up to 40 percent off, according to its website) and other travel products such as hotels and car rentals. The caveat is that if your bid is accepted, you must purchase the ticket. Priceline also has a best-price guarantee, so you can get a complete refund if you find a better price for the exact itinerary after booking an opaque fare.
When bidding, don't forget that the rules of finding low fares outlined in Part One still apply: Book seven, 14, or 21 days in advance; travel off-peak; and include a Saturday-night stay. Don't bid more than you'd pay through a published fare. According to the helpful website BidonTravel.com, while Priceline might suggest what you should bid, the recommended percentage is often a conservative estimate, and it might be worthwhile to bid even lower.
If you need more information before you make a purchase, Priceline also allows you to choose your specific flights, times, and airlines at higher rates which are often still less expensive than published fares. Once again, it's important to note that the tickets you buy on any opaque website are non-refundable, non-transferable, and cannot be canceled.
Lesson #5: Be Flexible
Opaque sellers are best used only in certain situations. If you can be flexible with your flight times and don't need to arrive at your destination for a time-specific event (e.g., a wedding or business meeting), you might want to book with an opaque site. The opaque sites can't guarantee ahead of time that you will land in your destination by a specific time, only a specific date. And, if you're a frequent flyer, it's important to weigh the fact that you will not earn miles when you book with an opaque site.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)