John Russell  /  AP file
It's going to be a busy summer at the airports. Better get your tickets now.
By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/24/2006 6:10:53 PM ET 2006-04-24T22:10:53

The summer is getting closer and people are looking to snap up airline seats. But should they book now or wait for a better deal?

We’re starting to make plans for our summer vacation. Should we book our airfare now or wait a bit longer for the next big sale?
-- Shelle W., Philadelphia, PA

You’d better get moving! Airline ticket prices are up and, with rising fuel prices, set to go higher. Last week, the major airlines boosted leisure fares by about $10 roundtrip. According to Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com, this is the fifth time leisure fares have gone up this year.

Despite the higher prices, people are buying tickets and the planes are filling up. In March, the average plane for most of the big carriers took off with 8 out of 10 seats filled.

Terry Trippler, travel analyst for cheapseats.com, says planes are going to be packed this summer, “with the average plane being 90 percent filled.” That means the chances of the typical summer blow-out sale are slim.

Trippler tells me that in 38 years in the business he has never seen summer air travel selling as quickly as this year. “People are realizing that fares are probably not going to come down, so when they find a good fare, a fare that they feel is a fair price, they’re taking it and that’s my recommendation,” Trippler says.

Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for SmarterTravel.com, agrees. “If you can buy right now at a good price, do it,” he says. Remember, capacity is down – there are fewer flights and fewer seats to sell – so this year the airlines don’t really need their annual summer clearance sales. What the airlines will probably do is run some spot sales in the few markets where they need to sell seats. These sales will be short and “the price cuts won’t be very deep,” Perkins predicts.

So how do you find the best deal? Do your homework. Search the Web to find out what the “going price” is for the flights you plan to take. Trippler says once you find what you consider to be a fair price, take it. “If you think you’re going to find the absolute lowest price, you’re going to drive yourself nuts,” he says. “Find a fair price, buy it and relax.”

One more reason to book early: it increases your chances of getting a good seat. Wait until the last minute this year and it’s very likely you’ll find yourself sitting in the dreaded center seat.

Remember, if you decide to book with the airline rather than use a travel agent or discount travel site, use the airline’s Web site. You’ll not only get the cheapest price, but you’ll probably get some bonus miles for not booking with a human reservation agent.

When trying to read, e-mail or print an article from some Web sites, I’m told I must register first. Is this a safe and non-intrusive procedure?
-- Name withheld

I don’t see a problem as long as the information requested isn’t too personal. Most sites ask for your name, gender, age, e-mail address, and home zip code. Many also ask for your favorite hobbies and interests.  There may be a box – already checked – that says something like “Yes, I want to be notified about exclusive discounts and special offers.”  I always look for that and uncheck it.

I have no problem with giving them most of this information. After all, I’m getting their content for free, and they want to let their advertisers know about the people who visit the site. By giving them my zip code, I may also get customized information or advertisements. Also, none of this information can harm me in any way. I’m registered with dozens of news sites and have never had a single problem.

I draw the line at income and specific birthday – that’s just a bit too personal. I don’t need to tell them how much I make to subscribe to their newspaper or magazine, so I’m not about to share that personal information with them to use their Web site. Regarding age: I don’t mind telling them the year I was born, but they don’t need to know my specific birthday. Remember, birth dates are sometimes used to verify your identity when accessing sensitive information.

Consider this: A good friend of mine who’s a Web master says when the site won’t let you skip the income or birthday question, he just lies.

By the way, I always use a “disposable” e-mail account for these mandatory registrations. It’s a secondary e-mail account that I created just for online transactions. That way I’m not giving my primary e-mail address out to everyone. If the disposable address winds up being shared with various companies or added to spam lists, I can cancel it and create another one.

Here are two tricks I’ve learned: If you can read the article but can’t print it, just cut and paste the copy into a word document and print it.  If there’s an article you want, but can’t get without registering, do a search for that title. It might show up on a site that allows access without registration.

How can I protect my physical mail box from junk mail? I conduct all my personal business online. I receive all my bank statements and bills electronically. So the only reason I check my mail is to throw away all the garbage the mail carrier leaves in it. Is there anything I can do to stop getting so much junk mail?
-- Jon, Salt Lake City, Utah

Actually there is. You can reduce the amount of unsolicited national advertising mail you receive at home by contacting the Direct Marketing Association and registering with their Mail Preference Service.

You can do this by mail for free or online for $5. With the online option, you will need to provide a valid credit card number to pay the fee and verify your identity.

You'll find a list of various options available at the DMA’s Mail Preference Service Web site. By putting your name on their “do-not-mail” list, you should greatly reduce the amount of commercial mail you get.

The list is distributed to DMA members at least four times a year. It is also made available to other marketers who want to purge their mailing lists of people who do not want unsolicited mail.  Your name will remain on file for five years. After that, you can sign up again.

This service does not apply to mail sent to “resident/occupant” or to mail sent to your business address. You cannot use the Mail Preference Service to have your name removed from a specific mailing list. If you want a specific company to stop mailing you, you’ll need to write directly to them.

Junk mail doesn’t end when you do, which can be traumatic for widows and widowers. To help these families, the DMA now offers “The Deceased Do Not Contact List.” Information about the individual who has passed away can be registered by friends, relatives and caregivers. There is a $1 credit card verification fee for this service. The DMA says there are two reasons for this: to make sure they have a permanent record of the person who did the registration and to prevent fraud or misuse of the system.

All DMA members are required to honor this request. This information is also offered to any other companies and non-profit organizations. DMA says the amount of mail addressed to the deceased individual should start to drop off within about 3 months.

By the way, while we call it “junk” mail, the U.S. Postal Service calls this advertising or bulk business mail “standard mail” -- and it makes a lot of money for them. Last year, the USPS handled more than 100 billion pieces of “standard mail,” which produced $18.9 billion dollars in revenue. Postal Service Spokesman Ernie Swanson says “without that volume of standard mail, first-class rates would undoubtedly have to be higher."

Follow-up file
A number of readers who read last week’s column “ How Often Should I Change My Oil ” wrote with other oil-related questions.

I own three vehicles, all 2005 or 2006 models. All three call for 5W-20 oil. I had never heard of this before. I am seeing 5W-20 more available on store shelves now, but a few months back it seemed somewhat difficult to find. Is this a fairly new blend and what’s the reason for it/
-- Steve M, Crandon, WI

Yes, 5W-20 is fairly new oil, designed for today’s more sophisticated engines. As John Ibbotson, an automotive expert at Consumer Reports, explained to me, “because the tolerances are tighter and things are smaller, you need a thinner oil to get through the passages and to keep things moving and lubricated.” Ibbotson says this is especially important on cold starts where the oil has to rush to the engine after sitting overnight. “The thinner 5W-20 oils do that much better,” he says. They can also help your engine run better, which will improve fuel economy. Remember, older vehicles still need thicker oils. Use the grade of oil called for in your owner’s manual.

What are the advantages of using synthetic oil? And if I decide to make the switch, when should I do it?
-- Steve, Wareham, MA

The companies selling synthetic oils will tell you their products are far superior to conventional oil and worth the significantly higher price. They claim synthetics can reduce friction, decrease engine wear, prevent rust, protect against harmful deposits, deliver better performance in temperature extremes, decrease oil use, and last longer between changes. Synthetics have another advantage: they don’t come from oil pumped from the ground.

A number of high end vehicles, such as the Mercedes SLR, Cadillac XLR, Chevrolet Corvette, Bentley GT, and Aston Martin have engines designed to run on synthetic oil, so they come filled with Mobil 1.  If you have one of these vehicles, or if you're planning to race at the Indy 500, you would absolutely want to use synthetic oil. Otherwise, you need to consider cost vs. potential benefit.

Mike Calkins, Manager of AAA's Approved Auto Repair program says, “the engine in the average motorist’s vehicle is probably not operating under conditions where the added protection offered by synthetic oils come in to play." However, he says "it can be beneficial if you do a lot of towing and your engine is constantly under a heavy load." Calkins says synthetics are also a good option for people who live where it gets extremely hot in the summer or extremely cold in the winter.

The makers of synthetic oils say you can go longer between changes, in some cases as far as 15,000 miles, but both AAA and Consumer Reports recommend following the service interval listed in your owner’s manual, especially while the car in under warranty.

A number of new vehicles, including models from Honda, Mercedes, BMW and General Motors now have oil change indicator systems; a warning light goes on when the vehicle senses it’s time to change the oil. AAA's Calkins says we'll see more cars offering this feature in the future.

I've been using synthetic motor oil in my car and have been told if I switch to regular oil there is a strong possibility the seals will start to leak.  Is this true?
-- Ruth F

Synthetic oil manufacturers say their products have been designed to be compatible with all the seals and gaskets in the engine. I asked Ibbotson at Consumer Reports about that and he agrees. “Switching from synthetic to conventional motor oil or vice versa,” he says, “is not a problem. Of course, if your engine already has an oil leak, you should have that repaired before switching to a synthetic product which may make the problem worse.

Is it good to use synthetic oil after the car has more than 100,000 miles on it?
-- Greg P., Flovilla, Georgia

Not really. If you’re using a synthetic oil to reduce engine wear and extend engine life, you need to do that when the engine is new, well before it hits 100,000 miles. “If your engine has over 100,000 miles, and it is worn and possibly burning oil, synthetic oil will not plug the leaks,” says Phil Reed, the Consumer Advice Editor for Edmunds.com. “In this case, you can buy heavy weight synthetic oil, but if you’re burning oil, why not burn cheaper oil?”

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