It’s a complicated path to find the right seat, the right route, the right schedule, at the right fare.
• Use online sites to comparison shop, but unless the fare you find is significantly lower than you find through the airline, you’re better off purchasing your ticket directly from the carrier. “It makes it simpler to arrange seat assignments and upgrades,’’ says Seattle-based Scott Mackenzie, who blogs about the airline industry at travelcodex.com. “It’s also much, much easier to fix canceled or delayed flights when things go wrong.”
• Cross-check your searches before buying to make sure you’re seeing all the possible fares and flight times available, and keep in mind that a few airlines, notably Southwest, post fares only on their own websites. Google Flights, says Mackenzie, “is an excellent tool for most travelers” (google.com/flights). “The main advantages are that you can quickly compare alternate dates and even alternate destinations. If Maui is too expensive, look at the map to see if Oahu or Kauai — or even Cancún — might be cheaper.”
• Beware of restrictions and higher change fees on discounted fares sold by third-party consolidators. Airlines exclude some discounted fares from earning frequent-flier miles, and making changes can cost more. Vayama.com, for instance, charges a processing fee of $100 to change a ticket, in addition to airline change fees.
• Just because an online ticket seller puts the word “cheap’’ in its name doesn’t mean it will have the lowest fares. Example: A recent search for a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Seattle to Honolulu in October showed the fare at $508 on the airline’s website vs. $518 quoted by CheapTickets.com, Priceline, JustFly and other third-party sites.
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• Consider using low-cost foreign airlines (EasyJet, Ryan Air, Air Asia, etc.) for flights between cities in Europe or Asia, but keep in mind that most restrict the weight and size of carry-ons, and charge for checking bags and other services.