As a travel writer and editor, one of the most common questions I get is about saving money on airfare. Winter holiday travel can be especially difficult, as everyone wants to travel at the same time, most people have a very limited time frame when they can travel before returning to work or school, and everyone wants to be with their families on the actual holidays.
All this means high demand for seats, which translates into higher fares for those few available seats. With common sense and good planning, it’s possible to save money on winter holiday airfare. Here are this travel writer’s five key tips to save on winter holiday travel:
As a travel expert, this is usually the best advice I can give, especially if traveling on specific dates is important. Some airlines accept reservations 364 days in advance, so consider planning not only 2012 but 2013 holiday travel now. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who plan their winter holiday travel in September or October. The summer is an ideal time to seek out low airfares. As always, the lowest fares are always offered at least 21 days out from the departure date.
Consider Alternate Airlines
Many international carriers provide service between U.S. cities and can be great alternatives to domestic carriers for domestic travel. Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai, serves New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, for example.
Lesser-known international carriers also serve major U.S. and international destinations and are great, lower-priced alternatives to the big international airlines. Icelandair serves Boston; Denver; Minneapolis; Seattle; New York; Washington, D.C.; and even Orlando, connecting them all with all the major European capitals. Air India serves New York, Boston, and Chicago, flying direct to London, Paris, and Frankfurt, in addition to Indian destinations.
Domestic carriers that are not commonly known also serve popular city pairs. For example, smart Los Angeles-based travelers know to check Hawaiian Airlines for their LAX-Las Vegas flights, in addition to Southwest and other more commonly known carriers. Frontier Airlines, based in Denver, serves many U.S. cities, along with cities in Mexico and Central America. Another low-cost airline we like is Spirit Airlines, which also flies throughout the U.S. and serves the Caribbean and South America.
This is another key to saving on winter holiday airfare. Consider traveling on the actual holiday, when most people want to be with their families.
Be flexible about stop-overs, too. Frontier will fly travelers from Los Angeles to New York, but they must stop in Denver. Similarly, Southwest offers some great cross-country fares, but they usually include a stop in Las Vegas or Phoenix. In exchange for some extra travel time, travelers can find more and cheaper flights than on the legacy carriers.
Holiday travel means higher rates, but if travelers go against the grain, they can find bargains. This means avoiding warm places in the winter, like Florida, and instead seeking off-season options like Europe.
Check Alternative Airports
Many online booking systems now allow travelers to check surrounding airports. For example, if we can’t find a flight out of LAX, we also check BUR (Burbank), LGB (Long Beach), and SNA (John Wayne Orange County), as they are all within about an hour of our home.
Internationally, this is also possible. For example, although international flights in London arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick, Stansted is also great option for European flights. The airport is served by Ryanair and EasyJet, two low-cost European carriers with incredibly low (and very low-frills) fares. Travelers should check booking on these airlines carefully — they have very low fares, but they also charge for virtually everything related to the flight. Ryanair even made headlines when they announced (then cancelled) their plans to charge for restroom use. The airline has now been considering replacing one restroom on their planes with more seats, leaving a single bathroom to serve the entire flight of 200 passengers and six crew members.
Call the Airline Directly
Even with the plethora of airfare booking and travel sites, we prefer dealing with a reservation agent. We recommend starting online, and if we find what we need, we do book it right there. But a live agent is helpful, especially for complicated international itineraries. Also, a live agent can assemble segments from partner airlines, something most online booking methods cannot do.
For example, we recently searched for a flight from Los Angeles to Paris for New Year’s Eve on the American Airlines website. We found nothing available. We spoke with an American reservation agent, who was able to book us on Finnair direct to Paris from New York. The Los Angeles to New York segment was booked on American, something that cannot be done online.
For online booking, we try the airline’s website, as well as KAYAK, which shows the results from hundreds of online sites, then allows travelers to book directly on the site they choose. Vayama.com is another good site for international airfares. It’s not as well known in the U.S., but our colleagues in Europe find it essential.