Pat Sullivan  /  AP file
Passengers check in at a Continental Airlines ticket counter in Houston. There's no real shortcut to finding cheap airfare, you need to shop around to get the best deal.
updated 5/15/2007 8:48:51 PM ET 2007-05-16T00:48:51

Think you need a vacation now? Just wait until you're scouring dozens of booking sites, aggregators and airline Web sites to find cheap tickets for your next trip -- then you'll really be ready for a week off!

Unfortunately for weary travelers, there's no real shortcut to finding cheap airfare. As with any purchase, you need to shop around to get the best deal -- by trying different booking sites, altering your dates, and waiting until just the right time to purchase. But if you're willing to put in a little time and effort, you could save big on your next flight. Want to learn how? Read on for our top 10 tips -- and then share your own!

1. Buy Early
Especially during peak travel periods, making reservations late in the game can cost you a lot of money. Airline ticket prices typically go up 21 days, 14 days, 7 days and 3 days before flying, so if you're planning ahead, try to make the call before these deadlines. And if you're traveling internationally, you'll want to book even earlier -- from three to six months in advance -- for the best deals. However, sometimes you can get lucky if you wait, which brings us to:

2. Buy Late
Often you can buy tickets at the very last minute for a great price, if the airlines have failed to fill their planes. Many airlines offer weekly newsletters that feature their best last-minute deals. You can also find many of them listed in our Bargain Box, or at specialized sites like LastMinuteTravel.com. If you can stand the suspense, and if you are flexible with your itinerary, you can find fantastic money-savers to very attractive travel destinations.

3. Shop Around
No matter how good it sounds, you should never book the first fare you see. Start your search by checking a few of the major online travel providers, like Travelocity, or aggregator sites like Kayak.com. This will give you a preliminary idea of which airline flies your particular itinerary, what the going rate is and what restrictions might apply. Armed with this information, you can head directly to the appropriate airline Web site to see if the same flights are any cheaper (some airlines guarantee to offer the lowest possible fares on their Web sites). While you're there, check to see if the airline is running any sales or promotions to your destination.

If you don't see anything in your preferred price range, don't be afraid to bide your time and watch the fares for a bit. Most major booking sites have alert features that will e-mail you when your fare drops to a price you're willing to pay.

4. Know When to Buy
The hardest part of booking a flight is knowing when to stop tracking fares and make that final purchase. If you're flying within the U.S., Farecast.com can help you reach that decision, offering fare predictions for more than 75 cities. Just plug in your itinerary and the site will advise you either to book now or to wait, depending on whether the fare is expected to rise or drop. (Farecast also offers a Fare Guard service, for an additional fee, that will protect you if the price drops after you book.) Another useful site is Kayak.com, which displays the fare history for domestic and international flights, allowing you to see whether your fare is headed in an upward or downward direction.

Finally, keep in mind that most airlines launch fare sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays -- so if you decide to buy on a Monday, you may be gnashing your teeth on Tuesday when your destination goes on sale.

5. Be Flexible
If you live close to more than one airport, check out the fares from all of the airports near you. Many online fare searching engines will ask you if you are willing to depart from or arrive in more than one city. Yes! Also, experiment with different travel dates; shifting your itinerary by a week or even a few days can make a significant difference in fares. You'll usually find the best deals on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

6. Don't Forget the Discounters
As their nickname suggests, discount airlines can save you a bundle, but they're not always easy to find. Luckily for consumers, discounters are cropping up more frequently on aggregators and booking sites (Kayak now offers fares for JetBlue, Spirit and AirTran, for example) -- but there are still a few holdouts, such as Southwest and Allegiant Air, whose fares can't be found anywhere but their own Web sites. If you're traveling outside the U.S., don't forget to check the international discounter airlines as well.

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7. Use Your Frequent Flier Miles
Why pay a fare at all when you can use your frequent flier miles? Although redeeming miles has gotten more difficult in recent years, it's still a good option to consider, particularly if you're booking early; airlines designate a very limited number of seats on each flight as eligible for award travel, and these seats go quickly. For more on redeeming your miles, check out these tips from Traveler's Ed.

8. Get a Refund When Fares Go Down
If fares go down after you've purchased your ticket, ask for a refund! You may not always get one, but policies vary by airline -- and many do not publicize the fact that they will refund you the difference if prices go down. It can't hurt to ask.

9. Air Passes
In order to promote tourism in their countries, many national airlines offer air passes at reduced rates for tourists. If you're planning to do extensive travel in one country or region, an air pass might be your most cost-effective option. Qantas offers the Aussie AirPass for travel throughout Australia, while Cathay Pacific has a similar product for flights throughout Asia. For a comprehensive list of air passes worldwide, visit Airtimetable.com. Planning an even bigger trip? Look into around-the-world fares.

10. Check for Deals and Discounts
Don't forget to check our comprehensive Bargain Box for the latest air deals -- we post new ones every weekday. If you or your traveling companions are senior citizens or children, you'll want to take a peek at our senior and family areas as well.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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