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updated 2/5/2009 10:05:22 AM ET 2009-02-05T15:05:22

For at least the first half of 2009 (few know what lies beyond), I predict that we will see some of the best travel deals in some time. Low fuel prices, low demand and the airlines' old cockeyed pricing habits will conspire to dump a lot of cheap seats onto the market — but they won't come without some pitfalls. The airlines will still be trying to get every cent from you, and will position many deals as the attractive bait hiding the sharp and deadly hook.

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We've all done it. You look into a specific itinerary, see a great deal and then start making plans — talking to family members, looking into hotels, setting up pet care — and by the time you're ready to book the actual itinerary, the deal is gone, or, perhaps even worse, just not quite as good. By then, however, you've put in some work and generated a bit of excitement about a trip, so have been softened, ripened and enticed into accepting a slightly higher price point.

That is, you took the bait, the hook was set and now you've been reeled in. Avoid being thrown into the ice locker and later filleted by the airlines' aggressive and ever-changing pricing schemes by knowing what you want, and how and where to find it. Following are my tips on finding deals, knowing a good one when you see one, and being in the right place at the right time to let the bargains come to you.

When is a deal a deal?
How can you tell a great deal from a “normal” fare? If you regularly fly the same or similar routes, as might be the case when flying to visit family once or twice a year, you figure this out by experience — you know immediately when you see a great fare. But if you are researching a route for the first time, this can be a trickier proposition.

Here is my personal rule of thumb: If the airfare is less than 10 cents or so per crow-flies mile roundtrip for long-haul trips, it is just about “normal” — which for a lot of folks means slightly on the high side, particularly for non-essential travel. That would be approximately $600 cross-country roundtrip, $700+ New York to London or $1,650 New York to Tokyo. If the airfare is getting anywhere near five cents per crow-flies mile — $300 cross-country, $375 New York to London — that is the rock bottom. The closer you get to five cents, the harder the fares will be to find, and the faster they will disappear. Anything in between is probably going to work for most folks.

For shorter trips under 750-1,000 miles, the numbers are a little higher, more like 50 to 60 cents per mile for “normal” fares, with the bottom being a little closer to 25 cents. So the 400-mile Newark/Boston round trip would be around $250, with the bottom around $100 and change. For a longer flight such as Boston to Miami, you can split the difference, with the 2,500-mile flight coming in at around $500 for a “normal” flight, and $250 for a bargain fare.

(Here's an interesting aside: As I did some sample searches on these same routes, I almost invariably found the “cheap” fares if I searched just 21+ days out; we are definitely in a buyer's market if you are ready to purchase).

How to suss out the market
When you are ready to buy, you will want to understand the full panoply of available flights and fares as thoroughly as possible before purchasing — no one wants to find a better fare just seconds or hours after confirming a flight. Here is my turn-by-turn roadmap to finding and ultimately booking the best fares.

The first and easiest thing to do is a standard search on one of the booking engine sites like Expedia or Travelocity. I would recommend starting with your preferred travel dates and times — that is, have a look at what it costs to travel on your ideal flights before you start looking for deals. If the fare works for you and meets some of the lowest per-mile formulas above, my recommendation is to do another search or two to make sure you are getting the right price, and purchase on the spot if you can.

Subsequently, check fares on aggregator and discounter sites, including Kayak.com and Hotwire.com. Personally, this is my first step, for a couple of reasons. First, I have the luxury of being equidistant from two major airports, and I regularly fly into places that also have multiple airport options — so doing a search on these sites, which allow the inclusion of neighboring alternate airports, makes a lot of sense. (Kayak even shows the distance in miles of each airport from your primary airport.) Second, I have become very comfortable with manipulating all the available flight options. If these conditions describe you as well, I would start here (with Kayak in particular).

Use search options to check alternate airports, allow connections, permit very early and very late flights and even search alternate days of travel. While this step may not always produce the exact flight you want, it will give you a broad overview of what fares are like on multiple airlines at multiple airports on multiple days and times. You'll pretty much understand the market after a few of these searches.

Next, surf to (or subscribe to) last-minute or weekend getaway fares for those airlines that fly your route — you will know what these airlines are based on the searches you have already done. These will show you the absolute rock-bottom fares available to and from many cities, and you will quickly understand how low fares can go. You might even find a fare you like to boot — note that these fares don't always show up on the major search engines.

Don't hesitate
If you see a great fare and are ready to go, buy it. Right there, right then. Airfares change every few seconds, and as the saying goes, fortes fortuna adjuvat — fortune favors the bold.

I can't emphasize enough how important this is going to be if you find one of these golden airfares down around five cents a mile. I have seen fares like these disappear in the time it takes to complete the booking process — when you do the search, they're available, but by the time you make your seat choices, type in your address and credit card, and click through a confirmation screen or three, they're gone.

In these cases, the fares may only edge up by a few dollars, or maybe a few tens of dollars — but by then the hook is set and you have to follow the line into the boat, the very scenario we are trying to avoid.

I can't find any great fares ... what now?
What do you do if you see a good — but not great — fare? Should you buy or should you wait? My recommendation would be to have a look at Farecast.com and see what they think is likely to happen to that fare as your travel date approaches. If it looks like your current price is as good as it is going to get, you probably want to buy.

The airlines do, of course, have policies that offer refunds if fares go down for the same seats on the same flight that you have already purchased. Unfortunately, in one of the most insidious of the new and nasty surcharges we saw crop up in 2008, they will hit you with a “change fee,” which for most airlines is in the $75-$100 range. So unless the fare goes down by at least that much, you will be better off just keeping the tickets you have. Not much of a price guarantee, eh?

Too good to be true? Maybe
Without question, go in with your eyes open. As surcharges and fees are often deliberately hidden from your review at the time of purchase, now more than ever this is a critical piece of being an informed and successful consumer of travel products and services.

Perhaps even before you start your search, you will want to know what your checked bags will cost you on domestic flights (on international flights you can still check bags for free — at least for now), as this will become a fixed cost that you will have to pay later at the airport. See this chart for an up-to-date roundup of current airline fees.

You will want to look at your itinerary very closely, as some details can defy quick scanning.

Some examples:

  • Tight connections: airline on-time ratings have not improved dramatically as capacity has dwindled, and tight connections are more risky than ever.
  • Direct flights that are not nonstop
  • Odd connections: when researching my trip to China for the Olympics last year, I wanted to fly from the East Coast to China, stop in San Diego on the way home and then fly back to the East Coast. I saw a great fare that indicated “nonstop flights only on two of the three legs,” and almost fell in love — until I saw that the flight back to the U.S. took me all the way back to Newark before putting me on a direct flight to San Diego. Looked great until I looked more closely at the details of that middle leg, which appeared on the main search screen only as “one connection.” But what a connection it was!
  • On an international itinerary, a connection or layover that will require you to clear customs — which means you have to collect your bags, go through customs, recheck your bags, owwwww ...

Additionally, many search engines show you only the base fare, not including any fees or surcharges. As you click through the booking process, watch as these fees are added on and check the final payment screen carefully, as this may be the only time you actually see the real cost of your ticket. I don't care how the airlines want to package this, what really matters is what shows up on your credit card statement. By reading carefully, you can also usually see whether meals are included.

Sign up
Almost every travel outfit of any size has some sort of fare notification system these days, including discounter and auction sites like Hotwire and Priceline, as well as the booking engines and the major airlines. In most cases, once you are signed up, you don't have to do a thing — the deals arrive in your e-mail inbox. Particularly if you fly the same routes often, these notifications can pay off your time investment at signup several times over.

Check out tips for finding cheap airfare for more bargain-hunting tactics.

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