Don’t let airline deals pass you by

Discuss online: ajc.com/go/bargains. Our Deal Spotter section in Thursday’s AJC is full of great local deals and exclusive offers.

Recently, I made a last-minute decision to join a family trip to the gulf coast. I didn’t want to drive, so I stalked airfares for a month. I watched the ticket price jump from $250 to $350 per person round-trip. I kept thinking the fare would drop the following Tuesday, but it didn’t — it maxed out at $720. So instead of lounging at the beach, I’m writing this column. Little did I know, I was doing everything wrong.

“If you wait and try to buy your ticket on Tuesday or Wednesday, that is not as much of a factor,” says George Estelle, founder and president of Trips With George, debunking the commonly held belief that low fares are published on those days. Nor is constantly checking the same flight. “[Airlines] change prices three to four times per week on flight pairs where they see a lot of traffic.”

Oops. I really messed that up. The airline industry sure is changing.

We’ve watched as airlines have continued to consolidate, add fees, reduce conveniences and boost fares. Estelle says it isn’t all bad. We can expect overall service to get better, he says, and we will see more airlines going after non-brand loyal customers with pricing specials. Already, airlines such as Virgin America and Southwest are earning rave reviews from fliers for service and value.

But what can a budget traveler do right now to avoid the high cost of air travel? Estelle, a travel agent with 17 years experience, says it pays to plan ahead.

Airlines release prices nine months in advance, so for holiday or other high traffic travel times (i.e. summer…) it is best to buy early. Only about 25 percent of travelers buy four months or more in advance and those people probably get the best pricing, Estelle says. Flights during popular weeks rarely have a reduction in prices. If you’re worried about making plans so far in advance, Estelle suggests buying travelers insurance.

When airlines do list low fares, it is based on the inventory of seats. If your travel plans are flexible, wait for those deals to be released and plan your trip accordingly, Estelle says.

You might also consider flying into a different airport in the same metro region. For example, it may cost $50 less to fly into Newark, N.J., than New York City, but you have to also figure in ground transportation costs and the extra time involved.

Always book your flights online since most airlines now charge a $25 fee to reserve through an agent, Estelle says. Use sites such as Orbitz and Travelocity, but check the airline websites as well. The airlines will always show the lowest price they are offering to the public, while other sites may not.

If you want a person to assist you, travel agents can still help and they may even find a great deal.

“We may have access to bulk fares which they don’t put on the website,” Estelle says, adding he recently found a business-class ticket for $5,000 less than the price on the airline website.

Do all that you can to get the best value on air travel, but know that any time you are on a plane, everyone probably paid a different price to be there.

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