If it seems like the airlines have a few new tricks up their sleeves this summer, it's not your imagination. The Department of Transportation (DOT) may have taken some of the sting out of deceptive pricing practices, but it hasn’t done much to change the fact that summer airfare is expensive—or that the airlines are still being sneaky with their fare rules and restrictions. Whether it's new carry-on bag fees, hidden fuel surcharges, or coordinated price hikes for popular travel days, the airlines are always doing something to get hold of just a little more of your money.
Fight back with these 10 tips. Some are new, some are new twists on tried-and-true strategies, and some are specific to this summer. Altogether, they'll give you a fighting chance at taming the high cost of your summer flights.
Best Day of the Week to Book
Don't let anyone tell you there's no "best day" to book airfare. There categorically is a best day (and a best time, too) for domestic flights—and that's Tuesday around 3:00 p.m. ET. It makes sense when you understand the process. Early Tuesday morning is when Southwest, AirTran, and sometimes JetBlue announce their new sales. It then takes a few hours for those creaky, lumbering behemoths known as the legacy carriers (American, Delta, United, and US Airways) to get around to matching the low-cost carriers' prices on the specific sale routes.
By midafternoon on the East Coast, the whole "fare war" machine is in full gear, giving you the best possible availability on multiple airlines competing for your business at the same sale prices. Most sales are good for 72 hours, from Tuesday through Thursday, so even if you can't purchase right at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, you'll still have a shot at the sale prices for a few more days—although you may have fewer low fares (and fewer airlines) to choose from.
Best Days of the Week to Fly … Except When They're Not
The cheapest days to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. This is sound advice year-round, but it's especially worth noting in the summer when prices skyrocket. But watch out, as even those midweek days can be extra-expensive when they fall on or around a holiday—such as Tuesday, July 3, this year.
How Far in Advance to Book
When it comes to summer flights, the early bird usually gets the worm. Ideally, you should start shopping about three months in advance of your departure date if you're planning to travel on or around the highest air-traffic days (i.e., Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day). If you haven't started yet, you may have already lost out on the best deals for the first two holidays, but there's still time for that Labor Day trip. If you're not looking to travel right around the holidays, you should still be able to find a decent deal by booking about four to six weeks ahead of time.
Most summer airfare sales require a 21-day advance purchase, so waiting until the last minute is unlikely to save you money and will almost certainly cost you. The airlines have gone to great lengths in recent years to reduce capacity in order to make sure they're not flying planes with empty seats. Consequently, the seats that are available generally sell out. So don’t play chicken with the airlines and hope for the best. You're at their mercy.
Pay Attention to Blackout Dates
The airlines still run sales during the summer, and the prices are often reasonable, too—as long as you observe the promotion's rules and restrictions and pay special attention to blackout dates around the holidays. This summer, those will be the days immediately before and after May 28, July 4, and September 3. If you must travel near those dates, pick the flight on the holiday for the best of the worst prices. Using a day or two of extra vacation time to gain a few days' flexibility during these holidays could save you enough to pay for an extra night at your hotel.
The New Face of Flexible Search
For travelers not committed to specific departure and return dates, the ability to search for low fares based on flexible dates within a travel window is one of the greatest tools available. But an unintended consequence of the DOT's new full-fare advertising rules is that these "flex searches" have become a lot less powerful. That's because sites like Orbitz (which once offered a 30-day flexible-search window) and Travelocity (which offered a glorious 330-day window) have reduced their search windows to just three days before and three days after your specified travel dates. Both sites likely found it too difficult to determine tax-inclusive prices on a flex search in the wake of the new DOT rules.
Three days isn't very flexible—not when a 30- or 330-day window could shave hundreds of dollars from the cost of your flight. Try the flex search offered on Hotwire's homepage (enter your travel dates and cities, then click the "Flexible Date Search" link to get a 30-day window); or use CheapAir.com for that massive 330-day search window (international searches are excluded, unfortunately). Even if you don't book with either of those sites, use them first to determine the best dates to fly.
Bonus tip: Some airlines have their own flex-search tools as well. I just saved hundreds of dollars per ticket on a flight to Iceland after researching departure and return combinations on Icelandair's website.
Know Your International Gateways
Speaking of Europe, consider making Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid, London, or Vienna your arrival city. These European gateways are served by major carriers from both sides of the Atlantic, and that generates enough competition to keep prices under control—relatively speaking.
Or, fly a lesser-known carrier hungry for your business. OpenSkies, for instance, just offered a great deal for New York to Paris from $899 in July ... in premium economy!
Another tip: Find out which international carriers fly directly to their home country from your nearest international airport, and then follow the cheap fares. My home airport, Boston's Logan International, generally offers great prices to Ireland because it's served directly by Aer Lingus. Again, it's all about the competition.
Ask a Travel Agent
Sometimes you need help. It's OK to admit it. If your itinerary is complicated, a travel agent's expertise could be the difference between a smooth experience and an airport disaster—not to mention an airline-fee surprise or two. Be wary of tight connections on different carriers, for example. I've seen flights from online travel agencies (OTAs) that would have allowed me to book a too-tight connection on airlines operating in completely different terminals; the OTA would keep my money and I'd be stuck waiting standby for the next flight out of Dodge because I missed my connecting flight. If you're feeling confused or overwhelmed, don't wing it and hope for the best. Get help.
Buy Airline Direct
Don't assume you've finished your homework once you've checked the major metasearch sites and Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia. Once you identify a flight you want, shop around directly on the airline's website for the same flight. Not all discounted flights are available to the OTAs. (Southwest, for example, doesn't sell seats on any third-party sites.) You may find an even better price, a better connection, or a better seat by booking airline-direct.
Know a Good Deal When You See One
If you find a summer flight for under $200 or $300—to or from anywhere in the U.S.—buy it. This is a good price even for short-haul routes, and a downright phenomenal one for long-haul or cross-country flights. Sure, if you wait a little longer you might find something $10 or $20 cheaper … or someone else might scoop up the last seat at that $200 range and you'll be stuck paying twice the going rate. General rule of thumb: If a price looks "pretty good," don't fret over it. Consider yourself lucky and move on to the next part of your trip planning.
I've never been much of a coupon clipper, personally. But when it comes to travel, there's money to be saved through coupons—and we're not talking $0.50 off your next box of cereal. This week, Spirit offered $10 off any flight, with no restrictions, just for entering a promo code at checkout. Air Canada and Porter Airlines routinely offer 50 percent off flights for anyone willing to poke around for a special code. JetBlue recently launched a "mystery offer" that netted savings of $20 to $500 for users who got a special code through email; the carrier also recently partnered with LivingSocial to offer a $50 flight credit with zero restrictions (pay $25, get $75 off). There's no two ways about it: Promo codes are the money-saving fad du jour in the air-travel space.
Another relatively new development in the airfare savings arena is social-media deals. Have you checked your favorite airline's Facebook or Twitter pages lately? Granted, they may not be the most scintillating conversationalists, but I often find great deals just for being a fan of the major carriers. A few weeks ago, I spotted a fantastic sale for flights to Maui and Oahu from Hawaiian Airlines—and it was only being promoted on the airline's Twitter feed (and here on SmarterTravel, of course).
Readers, what are your tricks for taming summer airfares? Have any of these strategies worked for you? Do you have any questions about finding a summer deal? Share your thoughts in the space below!