Summer's here and the flyin' is easy. Or should be.
With all the recent changes in airline fees, flight schedules and boarding rules, there's some turbulence aloft. To get some advice on how to fly smarter and cheaper, we talked with AirfareWatchdog.com CEO George Hobica in New York and SmarterTravel.com executive editor Anne Banas in Boston. Some excerpts:
Is this summer looking better or worse for airfares?
It's going to be more expensive. It's inevitable. The ugly, inconvenient truth is that airlines battled each other for market share for years and sold their product for less than it cost to deliver it. It just couldn't go on forever But, adjusting for inflation, airfares are still lower than they were 10 to 15 years ago. In relative terms, it's still a bargain.
When booking flights online, is it true that the best time to find deals is midweek?
The airlines are training people to look on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but there's no magic day of the week. Those myths about (finding best fares) at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays is nonsense. And the myth that booking six months ahead is cheaper is nonsense. Fares can go down in price any day, just like the stock market.
So what are the tricks to finding airfare bargains?
Sign up for airfare alerts (that send an email) when a fare goes down. You can get them from individual airlines, like Ding (Southwest Airlines), or sites like Tripadvisor, Travelocity, Kayak.
Check them a lot. Airlines make inventory available if seats are not selling. The best fares are unadvertised.
Another idea: Book two one-way tickets, instead of a round trip. A lot of airlines sell their lowest fares one-way. Sometimes it means you'll fly out on United and back on American; or out on Jet Blue and back on Virgin America.
Other ways to save?
Look at booking a package: hotel and airfare. Online packages are sometimes cheaper than buying just airfare.
Look at alternate airports. If you want to go to Tokyo, for instance, compare the Haneda and Narita airports. Last year after the tsunami, a round trip from Los Angeles to Haneda was $500, but to Narita it was $1,200.
Right now there are great fares on Allegiant, flying to Honolulu from Monterey for $400 round-trip, whereas out of S.F. and San Jose the fares are much higher.
What about airport parking?
Park at off-airport parking lots. A lot of off-airport lots are better lit, better guarded and much cheaper.
(Taking his advice, we used airportparking.com to compare parking rates for a two-week stay in July at San Francisco International airport. The daily rate ran from $11 at off-site locations to $20 at the airport's lot.)
How about keeping an eye on your valuables?
I'm hypervigilant when my laptop goes through the scanner. Be sure your laptop isn't waiting where anyone can take it. Put anything valuable in your carry-on and lock it. Even on a plane on overnight flights, lock your wallet and laptop in your carry-on.
Never put anything in the seatback pocket. People forget stuff, especially after a long flight so many iPhones, iPads and cellphones end up in those seatback pockets.
What's your must-have travel accessory?
I take noise-canceling headphones. When people are yelling into their cellphones, I can drown them out. The noise of the average jetliner can make you jittery and uncomfortable. If you don't have headphones, use earplugs. You'll arrive more relaxed.
You fly a lot. How do you rate today's flying experience?
To save fuel, the airlines have made seats that are harder, thinner and less padded and very uncomfortable. But generally, I haven't had a bad flight in years, so I don't know what people are complaining about.
My advice? Don't dress like a slob, in a dirty T-shirt and gym shorts. Be respectful. You'll get treated better. Be nice to (to flight attendants); they'll be nice to you And listen to the (seatbelt) safety demo, because flight attendants hate it when you're talking during their demo.
What are your tips for breezing through airport security lines?
One of the first is don't bring prohibited items. (Check the Transportation Security Administration's website, www.tsa.gov, for a detailed list, which covers everything from knitting needles (acceptable) to baseball bats (unacceptable).
Remember that children under 12 and (seniors) 75 and older don't have to take off their shoes anymore. Remember the 3-1-1 rule: All liquids must be in containers no more than 3.4 ounces, in a 1-quart zip-top bag, 1 bag per person.
Wear slip-on shoes wearing boots or tie-shoes really slows down the line. Flip-flops can be gross if you're walking barefoot on the floor, so I think socks are pretty nice.
If you bring electronics, make sure your laptop isn't buried in your carry-on bag. I use a neoprene sleeve that I can pull out easily.
Some of your favorite travel tips?
If you're a leisure traveler, especially a family, consider traveling on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings, when airports are less congested and lines are shorter. Early-morning flights tend to have fewer delays, especially if you're flying through hubs like Atlanta or Chicago.
If you want to be sure there's room for your carry-on in the overhead bins, pay for priority boarding (roughly $10 per passenger). You board first and it guarantees there'll be room for your carry-on.
How do consumers keep track of all the changing fees for bags, boarding and such?
It's terribly confusing and hard for consumers to figure out. The good news is that the airlines have to disclose all their basic fees (taxes, surcharges, etc.) when they post an airfare. And ancillary fees (for extras like pillows) have to be disclosed more prominently.
It's important to add up your total fees. An airline that might appear to be cheaper actually could be more expensive. For instance, you could see a great fare on Delta for $300, that's listed for $320 on JetBlue. But what you don't realize is that Delta is charging you $50 round-trip for each checked bag. You have to do the math.
Which are the best and worst airlines for baggage fees? And how do you avoid overweight bag fees?
For baggage fees, Southwest is absolutely the best; you can bring up to two checked bags for free. Spirit is terrible; you can pay up to $100 at the gate for a carry-on.
I bought a portable digital luggage scale to see if my checked bags are over the weight limit. It's small, (inexpensive) and fits in your carry-on. I love it.
The scale is great for return trips if you've gone shopping and have extra stuff in your luggage. If you're traveling with a companion, you can redistribute the weight between you to stay under the limits.
For airfare comparisons and alerts: www.AirfareWatchdog.com
For money-saving travel tips and deals: www.SmarterTravel.com