Fares on many routes are more expensive this year than last, but airfares are not static and there are some deals to be had any time of year. Here's my advice for making your airfare dollars go further no matter when you fly.
Sign up for the airlines' email feeds and frequent flier programs: Yes, we know, you already get too many emails, but the airlines want to develop a one-on-one relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50 percent off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up. Airline sites sell much more than airfares these days (hotels, rental cars, credit cards and such), and they will entice you to deal direct rather than use a third-party site such as Orbitz. If you're on Twitter, you might also want to follow the airlines' accounts, which they're using to promote exclusive deals.
Sign up for third-party fare alerts: Search for "airfare alerts." Many airfare websites offer them. Some let you track your specific itinerary, down to the flight number and dates of travel, and will let you know if the airline owes you a price-drop refund. Airfarewatchdog.com will send you a list of the cheapest fares from your nearest airports or alerts on specific routes when the fare is a bargain. Travelocity's easy-to-use Farewatcher lets you track up to 10 routes, and you can choose to be notified either when a fare goes down by $25 or more, or when it goes below a price you choose. Orbitz also offers alerts, as do Bing Travel, TripAdvisor.com/flights and others.
Search airline sites individually, but not exclusively: Many airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code fares. International airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Qantas regularly offer lower fares on their own websites compared to Kayak or Orbitz. But you shouldn't ignore online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity because these sites will tell you if it's cheaper flying out on one airline and back on another.
Buy hotel + air packages: It's often significantly cheaper to buy an air-plus-hotel package rather than airfare alone, especially for last-minute travel. We often see Travelocity "TotalTrip" offerings, especially on last-minute flights, pop up with hotel plus air for half the price of air alone. Lastminute.com is also a great source for finding last-minute packages.
Use Priceline for last-minute trips: If you don't have a 7-, 14- or 21-day advance purchase window to buy your fare, your best bet is the "name your own price" feature of Priceline.com. True, you won't know the exact flight times or airline you're flying until you pay for your trip, but you can save 50 percent or more. Hotwire.com can also be useful for last-minute trips.
Use a flexible date search: Many people are not flexible in their travel dates, but would you fly in a different month or a day or two earlier or later to save hundreds of bucks? If so, learn how to do a flexible travel date search on airline and third-party sites. Right now, Kayak.com has the most versatile flexible date search function, although once in a while the results aren't entirely accurate due to rapidly changing airfares.
Consider the extra fees before you buy: If Southwest has a fare of $198 round-trip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest actually has the lowest fare. How? Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, but United would charge you an additional $165 each way for three.
Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare: If you're flying to a destination in Europe or Asia, you might save money by purchasing one fare there and another fare back. The same holds true for some smaller Caribbean destinations via San Juan or the Bahamas. Even domestically, two fares can be less than one.
Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down: Let's say you've found the lowest fare and then the day after purchase your nonrefundable fare for the same itinerary goes down. If you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference. But some airlines will charge you a costly "administrative" fee of $150 or more, wiping out any savings. Others will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee. Currently, the "nice" airlines are JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska.
Check fares several times a day, and don't listen to airfare pundits who predict airfares: Airlines are unpredictable, and any airfare expert who claims he knows exactly when airfares are cheapest would have built an airfare website to end all airfare websites by now. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading. Fares fluctuate throughout the day, and the number of seats offered at the lowest fares also changes frequently. So if you don't like the fare at 10 a.m., check at 2 p.m. or the next day and you may be surprised.