Early Fall Getaways — Have Deals on Airfare Flown Away?

July 2012 View more


After doing an extensive survey of current airline prices and searching all ‘cheap’ airfare sites for the same destinations and dates, I am tempted to state that one of the only ways to save money on airfares is to take the train or drive. In fairness, volatile oil prices are wreaking havoc on the airline industry, but that means that there are fewer great airfare deals than a few years ago.

To put an exclamation point on rising airline expenses, I chose trips within 500 miles of Chicago and calculated transportation cost differences. Here’s one example, but others yielded similar results. Round-trip airfare for a long weekend to St. Louis—leaving on Thursday and returning on Tuesday—totaled $700 for a family of four. This price was consistent across all online sites on the day I did my search.

Compare $700 with a $192 round trip for the family on Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station, or $125 by car. Trains are not only are more comfortable, but on short trips, they are not dramatically more time intensive than airplanes. Even if a flight time is short, you also need to factor in check-in and waiting times at airports, which quickly add up.

Here are tips to try to save a few bucks, but remember that getting deals on airfares requires more hard work these days.

Tuesday Bargains

Check fares each day or a few times a day, and then check back on Tuesday afternoon. That’s when airlines typically put their deals on the screen. My St. Louis trip dropped to $128 from $175. Seats may be limited, and you’ll need to move quickly, but it’s a great tip that I’ve used over and over.

Destination Flexibility

Sometimes it pays to fly a little further from your destination city. A friend, headed for his 40th class reunion at Amherst College this summer, choked when he saw a $700 Hartford airline ticket. Boston, just a half-hour drive longer to the college than from Hartford, was $300.

Travel on Holidays

Friends in San Diego spend Thanksgiving weekend each year with their Washington, D.C-domiciled daughter. By flying at dawn on Thanksgiving Day rather than the day before, they save at least 30 percent on airfare. Sure, it’s a later dinner, but they have the whole weekend to enjoy.

Not Too Soon

You know airfares cost more the closer you get to departure. But it also works in reverse. Farecompare.com advises against buying too early. “Airlines don’t begin ‘managing’ prices until three or four months before departure,” says FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney, “If you buy any earlier than that, chances are good you’ll pay too much.”

Get Pinged

Try Yapta.com and others to get an email heads-up when airline prices drop for cities you like.

I Want a Person

I search Orbitz, Expedia and Airline Consolidator sites for my set dates and best fares, and then typically book from the airline site that offers the cheapest rate and best schedule. My personal experience is that airlines are more responsive when you encounter troubles—cancelled flights, refunds—than are the voiceless non-airline sites. Too much red tape for me.

Loyalty Can Count

Always become a member of airline loyalty programs. It costs little or nothing and may eventually offer some perks. Plus it may give you a little bit of leverage if there are delays or other inconveniences—even if you use the airline infrequently. It’s better to be at the bottom of the totem pole, than not to be on it at all.