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Ten things you should know before you book airfare

SmarterTravel

Before pulling out the credit card and plunking down a few hundred dollars on a plane ticket, make sure you’re aware of the new—and old—rules for booking airfare. Newbies and seasoned travelers alike can benefit from this refresher course on the basics of booking air travel.

1. Peak vs. off-peak vs. value season

When you begin planning a trip to a particular destination, be aware of its busy travel season. For example, if you’re planning to visit Paris in the summer, you’ll pay much more than during the winter. But if you visit Jamaica in the summer, you’ll pay far less than you would during the winter. You can read about the peak, off-peak, and shoulder (value) seasons for dozens of destinations in SmarterTravel.com’s [% 313112 | | Travel Guides %].

2. Compare fares

With so many flight and booking options, you should never buy a plane ticket [% 15410 | | without comparing fares first %]. Luckily, a handful of websites make the process much easier. The three major online travel agencies (Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity) display available fares from the major carriers. And, several meta-search websites—sites that search both the airlines and the online travel agencies—have also cropped up, including BookingBuddy.com (a sister site of SmarterTravel.com), Kayak, Mobissimo, and Yahoo! FareChase.

3. Don’t forget the low-fare carriers

If you’re comparing airfares solely with one of the major online travel agencies, you may not realize you don’t have access to the lowest fares around. Low-fare carriers JetBlue and Southwest only sell tickets on their own websites, meaning that users of Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity are missing out on potentially lower fares. Check JetBlue and Southwest separately, or compare with one of the meta-search websites mentioned above.

4. Know when to buy

When one airline announces a sale, its competitors often rush to match the prices. By keeping an eye on airline fare sales, you may be able to snap up a reduced-price fare. To stay informed about current offers, sign up for our [% 105146 | | Deal Alert %] newsletter. The deals in the newsletter provide information and analysis of sales from domestic and international carriers.

Even if you manage to find a low sale fare, note that the best prices usually require an advance purchase. A general rule of thumb is to book at least seven, 14, or 21 days prior to departure.

5. Sign up for alerts

Tracking prices on a given route can be time-consuming and frustrating, especially if you’re finding the same high prices day after day. However, it’s also the best way to get a benchmark price for your itinerary. A few websites offer fare-tracking services that monitor your route and email you when fares drop. Travelocity and Orbitz have offered Fare Watcher and Deal Detector, respectively, for several years, and Kayak recently unveiled its [% 297280 | | Buzz %] service, all of which track fares and send emails.

6. Avoid fees

Expedia and Travelocity charge $5 booking fees for airfare, and Orbitz charges at least $6.99. You may want to compare fares on one of these sites but ultimately book on the airline’s website. However, in our experience we’ve sometimes found low prices and flight combinations on Travelocity that we’ve been unable to duplicate on a given airline’s own website. Sometimes paying that $5 may still lead to an overall lower fare.

7. Fly midweek

You can generally find the lowest fares by traveling midweek. In most instances, midweek means Monday through Thursday; when traveling to Europe, however, it can mean Monday through Wednesday. If you opt to travel on the weekend instead, you’ll usually pay a surcharge.

8. Consider last-minute fares

American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, US Airways, Frontier, Spirit, Icelandair, and other carriers offer last-minute airfare specials for travel during the upcoming weekend and beyond. These fares are very limited, so if you’re interested, sign up for our [% 313111 | | Last-minute Airfares %] newsletter for your departure city and book as soon as you see a fare you like (or risk being shut out). Or, book an airfare-and-hotel package with a last-minute travel provider like Site59. Booking a package can sometimes cost less at the last minute than booking airfare alone.

9. Use discounts

You may be eligible for discounts that can save big bucks on flights. Seniors and students can both take advantage of discounts from major travel providers. Even if you’re not a student, travelers under age 26 can often take advantage of student travel deals. Our Senior and [% 69340 | | Student %] sections offer expert advice and provide details on travel deals for travelers in the appropriate age ranges.

10. Stay informed

Most airlines let you select your seat assignments when you book online. Before you book (or if you’re pressed for time, before you fly), take a peek at SeatGuru.com. SeatGuru describes the good and bad points of particular planes, and indicates which seats to avoid and which to strive for. It also details the in-flight services of a given plane. By doing a quick check on SeatGuru, you’ll know which seats are problematic (e.g., proximity of restrooms, inability to recline) and which seats are the best (e.g., extra legroom).

Remember these guidelines as you prepare for your next trip. Knowing the rules of finding low fares will make it easier (and less time-consuming) to find a flight at a good price.

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