5 dirty secrets of airfares
Know them and improve your chances of landing a better deal on your next trip.
By Donna Rosato, Money Magazine staff writer

NEW YORK (Money) -- Buying an airline ticket has never been a simple task - the rules of the game are always changing. But if you know how the game is played, you'll have a better chance of saving money.

There's more at stake for your travel budget these days: So far in 2006, airfares are up more than 10 percent over last year, the biggest jump since 1995 and a return to pre-9/11 fare levels, according to data from the Department of Transportation.

Here are five "secrets" that will clue you in on how to find the best fares.

1. Low cost carriers don't always have the lowest fares.

Low cost carriers JetBlue, Southwest and AirTran have rapidly expanded the past few years, bringing lower fares to many markets and burnishing their reputations as discount airlines. But low cost airlines don't always offer the lowest fares. That's because traditional airlines, which have spent the past few years in bankruptcy court slashing their own expenses, are aggressively matching or undercutting their low-cost rivals.

And though airlines like JetBlue, Southwest and AirTran generally have lower operating costs than traditional airlines, they're feeling the squeeze of rising fuel prices too. That means you shouldn't count out traditional airlines when looking for the best deals.

For example, a late August, roundtrip non-stop flight from New York to Orlando was $547 on JetBlue but just $504 on Delta Air Lines. Keep in mind that low-cost carriers have more consistent pricing, cap their highest fares, don't have as many restrictions and typically offer a larger number of seats available at lower prices than traditional airlines.

So, it may be worth paying a bit more to fly them, especially if you're flying somewhere at the last minute or may have to change your itinerary.

2. You may pay more in taxes and fees than you do for your airfare.

Fees and taxes have always been part of the equation for air travel. But in the last few years, airline and government-imposed charges have escalated, especially on overseas trips.

Fuel surcharges and government-imposed security fees in particular have made airline travel more costly and sometimes add up to more than the cost of your base ticket price.

For example, this summer, Virgin Atlantic Airways was offering $198 roundtrip flights from the U.S. to London but that didn't include $210 in additional taxes and fees.

Make sure you're comparing apples and oranges when you're buying an airline ticket by factoring in all charges, not just the base ticket price.

Many airlines don't show the extra fees until you're ready to book, though third-party ticketing sites like Orbitz and Sidestep do.

3. You can mix and match fares to get better deals.

Many airlines offer last minute weekend specials that are super cheap but may not go exactly where you want. You can combine two separate deals and still save, says George Hobica, founder and publisher of Airfarewatchdog.com, which scours the airline world for hidden fare deals.

For example, say you want to go from Boston to San Antonio but don't see any deal on that route. If there's a Boston to Atlanta flight for $128 roundtrip and an Atlanta to San Antonio trip for $108, you can buy both.

Hobica says it's fine to fly two different airlines -- most airlines, except Southwest and some smaller carriers, will transfer your bags to another airline but be sure to leave yourself enough time between connections on different airlines because they might be flying out of different terminals.

4. Your computer may be preventing you from getting the best deals.

Most Web sites use cookies, which are text files placed on your hard drive by a Web page server and are used to tell the Web server that you have returned to a specific page and retrieve information about you. This simplifies the process of recording your personal information, such as billing addresses, but also tracks the results you were viewing.

So, if you're checking fares for a vacation to Baja and return to the same Web site, the fare search engine may return the same results you viewed earlier rather than the new results, thanks to the cookies.

Luckily, it's easy to get around this by clearing the cookies on your Internet browser each time you do a search.

5. The most popular travel Web sites don't have the same information -- or the best deals.

It's a mistake to assume that you'll find the exact same fares on Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia, the biggest online travel agent sites, says Hobica. The sites negotiate deals with specific carriers and often have exclusive deals. So it pays to check all three and then check out individual carrier sites -- and not just to avoid the $5 to $10 booking fees that third-party sites charge.

Hobica says airlines increasingly are selling their best fares on their own Web sites, so sites like Travelocity and Orbitz (which don't have JetBlue and Southwest fares anyway) shouldn't be the only place you look.

The bottom line for fliers: Airfares are a constantly moving target, changing as much as three times a day. Sales come and go quickly. So, if you want to find the best deals, you'll have to shop around. But knowing how the rules work will make you a savvier shopper.


Steal your travel agent's tricks With the ExpertFlyer Web site, you can get an insider's peek into fare classes and seat availability.

Cheat your way to elite status You don't need to log a million miles to get benefits like express check-in and free upgrades.  Top of page

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