New Ways to Beat High Airfares
For the first time since 9/11, many of the big airlines are making money once again. But healthier carriers mean more uncomfortable fliersand not just because of the pretzel-pinching. Airlines like Delta, United, American, and US Airways have trimmed their fleets and replaced some large aircraft with smaller ones, meaning flights are likely to be more crowded than ever this summer.
And a shrinking supply of seats means higher prices. The average domestic airfare in the fourth quarter, the latest data available, was $378, the highest since 2000, according to the Department of Transportation. A separate measure of the cost of air travel showed the highest readings since 1995, when DOT first started measuring it.
The most expensive cities to fly from tend to be far from other urban areaslike Anchorage or Honoluluor airline "hubs" dominated by one carrier, like Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Newark. The cheapest airports often host a low-cost carrier, like Dallas's Love Field, a hub for Southwest, or they are smaller alternatives to big urban airports, such as Chicago's Midway or Houston's Hobby. (Find out how your airport rates.)
Many travelers, of course, have learned to use websites like Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity to get the best fares. But those sites have become so common that in-the-know travelers are turning to some newer services for an edge in finding the best fare.
Kayak.com, started by the founders of Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity, doesn't just scan airline-supplied listings for the best fare. It searches dozens of other websites and databases, including conventional sites like Orbitz and consolidators like cheaptickets.com, to find fares that might not be available on one site or the other. Kayak can also track fare trends on a particular route, to gauge whether fares are going up or down.
Another new site, farecast.com, serves the "strategic" traveler: people who have the flexibility to wait for the lowest fare, even if they don't know whether it's coming in two months or it's already past. In addition to scanning the Web for the cheapest flights, Farecast looks for patterns in pricing data over time to help predict whether fares are likely to go up or down. Then it recommends whether fliers should lock in their tickets or hold out for a better deal.
U.S. News decided to sample a few fares of its own, to see if Farecast fared that well. On 11 routes we picked at random, here's how the site performed:
Out of 11 routes, Farecast made the right prediction eight timesfor a 73 percent accuracy rate, similar to the much broader sampling by Navigant Consulting. Most of the fare changes were only $20 or so, but in a couple of cases following Farecast's advice would have saved us a couple of nights' worth of hotel rooms for a family of four.
The lowest fare from Cleveland to Phoenix rose from $229 to $378 during our weeklong experiment. And Farecast correctly advised us to buy, for a savings of $149. The website's biggest flub, by contrast, would have cost us only $16. Fliers who want to hedge their bets can buy the equivalent of fare insurance for a $10 fee; if you buy, and the fare goes up, Farecast will pay you the difference. Hey, even $16 will buy a couple of sandwiches for that bare-bones flight.