In addition to understanding the basics, naming your own price, and booking last-minute airfares, the educated air traveler also needs to know about buying consolidator fares, taking advantage of specialty discounts, and a few exceptions to the rules when booking an international flight.
Lesson #1: Buying a Consolidator Fare
Consolidators are ticket brokers that buy air tickets (primarily international tickets) directly from the airlines and resell them to travelers at discounted prices, sometimes at prices up to 70 percent lower than the airlines' published prices. While some consolidators may purchase their entire inventory in bulk, most consolidators get volume prices from the airlines, but then actually purchase tickets one-by-one as travelers book. Many of the problems travelers have with consolidators arise because the consolidators do not have control over the tickets they sell, so it's important to note this distinction before booking.
Consolidators' lowest fares often become available several weeks before departure, so it's best to wait until shortly before you plan to leave to book a consolidator's fare. The cheapest prices will often be on lesser-known airlines rather than well-known U.S.-based airlines. In some cases, you may not be told the name of the airline until you complete your purchase. Consolidators' fares are almost always unchangeable and nonrefundable, and usually do not earn frequent flyer miles.
Many consolidators allow customers to book tickets online, although some sell exclusively to travel agents. Look in the travel section of your Sunday newspaper, and you will often find advertisements for cheap airfares from consolidators. Several online consolidators include AirlineConsolidator.com, Airsaver.com, and BargainTravel.com, although there are many others.
It's important to exercise caution with an airfare consolidator, so research the company before you book to ensure it is a legitimate provider. Always pay with a credit card when booking, because your credit card company may offer you protection from fraud if the provider turns out to be less than reputable. If price is your number-one priority, it's worth considering booking with a consolidator, but if your dates might change, or if you're a frequent flyer interested in accruing miles, book elsewhere. And, be sure to shop around and compare prices before booking any airfare.
Lesson #2: Specialty Discounts
Taking advantage of specialty discounts is a good way to save money on airfare. Families, seniors, and students can all receive discounts on everything from airfare, hotel stays, car rentals, and other activities.
Families traveling together can take advantage of children's discounts, such as kids-fly-free deals, and infants are usually permitted to sit on a parent or guardian's lap for the duration of a flight without purchasing a separate ticket. Some airlines offer discounts on airfare for groups of 10 or more (families or otherwise) traveling together on the same itinerary. Browse SmarterTravel.com's Family Travel section for the latest family-specific air, car rental, cruise, hotel, and vacation deals, as well as travel advice.
Seniors can also benefit from discounts on airfare. Some airlines offer discounts for AARP members, while others have special senior rates. Senior airfare deals are often companion deals, in which seniors can bring a friend or family member at a discounted rate. AARP members can receive discounts on cruises, hotels, vacation packages, and more. Before booking a senior discount, however, shop around and compare senior rates with any-age rates to ensure you're actually getting a better deal. Read SmarterTravel's Senior Travel section for senior-specific deals, discounts, and travel advice.
Students (and, in many cases, anyone under 26) can take advantage of discounts from the many student travel agencies. STA Travel, StudentUniverse.com, and Travel CUTS specialize in student travel, particularly international travel. Rail passes, hostel stays, museum visits, and more are discounted with the International Student ID Card (ISIC), a student identity card that is valid for one year. People under 26 who are not eligible for the ISIC can save with the International Youth Travel Card (IYTC), which also offers discounts on airline tickets, accommodations, cultural events, and more. Use SmarterTravel's Student Travel section to find the latest student deals and read student-specific travel advice.
Before booking any discounted fare, specialty or otherwise, be sure to shop around. Only book a specialty fare if it truly is a discount; otherwise, you're better off booking a regular rate.
Lesson #3: International Travel
The general rules for finding a low price on international airfare are similar to booking domestic airfare: Book at least seven, 14, or 21 days in advance, travel midweek, and include a Saturday-night stay in your itinerary. But, when traveling internationally, it's even more important to know your destination's high and low seasons. The difference in prices from season to season can be hundreds of dollars.
If you travel to Europe in the summer peak season, for example, you can expect to pay double or even triple what you'd pay for airfare in the winter off-peak season. Or, if you travel to the Caribbean later in the spring, or in the summer or fall, you will pay hundreds less than traveling in the winter. Visiting a destination when most people aren't is a key factor in finding cheap airfare.
Unlike domestic flights, it may actually make sense to book different legs of your trip with different airlines for complicated international itineraries. Europe in particular has many intra-Continental airfare providers that offer super-low fares, sometimes as low as $2 each-way. If you're flying to a less touristy destination from the U.S. (Budapest, for example), and you can't find a low fare, try flying into one of Europe's hub cities, such as London, instead. Then, book an additional flight from London to Budapest on an intra-Europe carrier. EasyJet and Ryanair are two of Europe's major low-cost carriers, with prices significantly lower than larger airlines' prices.