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How to Track Airfare Prices

You don't have to have been traveling very long to know that airfares can go up and down like an elevator at quitting time. And you pretty much know that you want to buy at the bottom floor, not the penthouse prices. Sure, you could spend hours a day scouring the various travel websites the way technical stock traders scour the markets, but there's an easier way: Sign up for a few of the free airfare alert systems that keep track for you.

I alluded to these in an earlier column; here are some more detailed suggestions. The most useful airfare alert systems are the ones that monitor specific trips you have in mind and let you know when fares drop on routes you select. Among the better choices:

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SmarterTravel's sister site Airfarewatchdog is probably the most comprehensive and offers airport-to-airport email alerts whenever it spots an especially good fare deal. If you travel to/from a multi-airport metro area, you have to enter the airport-airport links individually—a minor annoyance. Airfarewatchdog is unique in that (1) its airfare searches employ actual people as well as computers, (2) alerts cover special deals based on promotional codes that most other alerts miss, and (3) it includes Southwest, which is not covered by other alert systems based purely on computer input. In case you're still wondering where to travel, Airfarewatchdog also issues "anywhere that's cheap" fare bulletins to/from your base city. Enroll on the home page; you can also follow Airfarewatchdog on Facebook.

Independently of Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel provides daily or weekly email bulletins covering hotels, car rentals, and packages, as well as airfare deals. You can also sign up for daily to weekly Departure City Fare Alerts from your home airport and for periodic City to City Route Alerts on individual trips. Enroll here. FareCompare offers similar reports.

Some big online travel agencies (OTAs) and metasearch engines provide similar periodic airfare sale and fare-change bulletins. Many also offer the same information through some combination of Facebook and Twitter.

Many domestic and international airlines offer some combination of email, Facebook, and Twitter deal updates; many also provide apps for smart mobile devices. If Southwest is in your orbit, install its "Ding" feature that automatically sends fare-change information to your computer via RSS or the corresponding iPhone app. Sign up for as many other lines as you might want to travel—if you don't mind a big jump in your email volume.

No matter which bulletins you choose, keep in mind the "usual suspect" strategies for minimizing airfares:

  • To/from multi-airport cities, check all the airports.
  • To/from smaller cities, check nearby larger cities where fares may be more competitive.
  • If you're flexible, look several days before/after your preferred trips for better deals. Many OTA and airline websites allow for flexible date searches.
  • Don't forget about traditional travel agents, who can track deals for you.

For the most part, these sources are most useful for tracking airfares before you buy. Yapta.com, among others, also features notification of a price drop on a ticket you've already purchased. This may or may not be useful; on most lines, a fare would have to drop $200 to $300 before you could benefit by re-ticketing, but it might be useful on Southwest, which doesn't impost change fees.

One other caution: As far as I can tell, none of the bulletins I've described deals with anything other than finding the lowest available coach/economy fares. To date, I know of no source that tracks premium economy, business, and first-class fares in a similar way.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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