The cost of air travel seems to be going nowhere but up, yet my travel budget remains stagnant. What are some ways to cut costs on airfare without cutting the number of staff we send to trade shows?
Indeed, travel prices are on the rise. Research from the United States Department of Transportation shows that fare prices have increased almost 33 percent between 1995 and 2014. Plus, additional fees for everything from checked bags to standby privileges have ballooned costs even further. While there's little you can do to change airline prices or even sidestep most of the extra charges, here are nine steps you can take to ensure you're purchasing the lowest fares possible.
1. Avoid midday flights. The time you fly can impact the cost of your flight significantly. Departing at dawn or catching a late-night red-eye may get you the cheapest flight of the day. For example, a departing American Airlines flight from Dallas to Las Vegas at 7:30 a.m. costs $212, while the flight that leaves at 1:40 p.m. is $333 — a difference of $121.
2. Purchase airfare with discounted gift cards. Websites such as GiftCardGranny.com sell airline gift cards at discount prices. For example, I've seen a Delta gift card for $300 priced at $270.75, a difference of 9.75 percent. Sure, buying and applying gift cards to your staff's airfare purchases adds another step to the process. But if you're planning travel for a significant amount of staff, that extra step can also add considerable cash to your coffers.
3. Shop on Tuesday. Airlines base ticket pricing on five variables: route competition, seat demand, route distance, seat supply, and fuel prices. Since these variables fluctuate by the hour, so do seat prices. But analysis of Dallas-based FareCompare LLC's database of current and historical airfares indicates that the cheapest prices are available at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. So get in the habit of pricing and booking flights at that time to maximize savings.
4. Stop over. I'm not a fan of making connections, but it's a great way to lower your overall fare costs in some cases. Look for short connection windows but make sure there's enough time to catch the next flight in case of a delay. Also, be sure the amount of savings is enough to justify the added inconvenience of a layover.
5. Travel midweek. Flight prices peak around the weekend as business travelers fly home and leisure travelers escape for a short getaway or vacation. For example, I recently saw a roundtrip flight from Chicago to Los Angeles that was $766 if you departed and returned on a Monday. The same flights and times leaving and returning on a Wednesday were only $366. Depending on the price of the hotel your staff is staying in, even an extra night in a hotel may outweigh the increased cost of airfare to travel on or around weekends.
6. Track price drops. Believe it or not, if the price of airfare drops after you've purchased (but not used) a ticket, some airlines will refund the price difference. For example, according to Yapta.com, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways will offer you a full refund for any price drop; whereas, Airtran Airways and Virgin America will refund price drops of more than $75. Even larger airlines will often offer a refund if the price drops $200 or more. So sign up for price-tracking services via your airline, Yapta.com, or sites such as Kayak.com. Not only might you be able to score a better price straight out the gate, but also if the price drops after the fact, you could be due a refund.
7. Compare airports. You might assume smaller airports with limited flights usually have costlier airfare, but this is not always the case. With limited schedules, these airports can't accommodate all travelers, making select flights and trips in less demand and therefore less expensive. So widen your fare search to include secondary airports or those within a short driving distance from your staff's final destination.
8. Search one-way flights. When flying to and from the same city, many people limit their search to roundtrip flights. However, booking one-way flights on different airlines may get you a better deal in some cases. So plug the round-trip flight into a search on a flight-comparison site such as Kayak. Then search for a one-way ticket to the location and a one-way ticket for the return trip. Note the lowest prices for each, and do the math to determine which option gets you the best price.
9. Book directly with airlines. I always recommend comparing prices and schedules with a search engine such as Kayak, but don't forget to search airline websites individually. Some airlines, including Southwest Airlines Co. and Sun Country Airlines, don't always allow their airfares to be posted to third-party sites, so if you don't check their websites for prices, you could inadvertently overlook a better deal. What's more, buying directly from the airline will reduce the hassle associated with working through a third party in cases of flight changes or cancelations.
Granted, the price of airfare will likely continue its ascent, and there's very little you can do about it. But these nine tactics can help you become a smarter shopper, and over time they'll no doubt put a little spare change back in your pocket.
– Andrea Woroch, consumer-savings expert, AndreaWoroch.com, Bakersfield, CA
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