updated 3/4/2009 10:11:23 AM ET 2009-03-04T15:11:23

Want to fly cheap? Time to break some bad habits.

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Like buying the first cheap ticket you see or waiting until the last minute to book a fare.

As the economic slump continues and both business and leisure travel declines, fares are getting cheaper as airlines try to fill seats. A roundtrip ticket betwee San Francisco to Boston for instance, was selling on Feb. 4 for $238, down from $400 on Nov. 1. Even with such bargains, however, travelers need to know a few tricks to get the very best prices.

First, don't hurry.

Matthew D. Weyer sometimes spends hours researching fares online. Knowing what a ticket usually sells for allows him to spot cheap fares almost immediately.

Weyer sets up e-mail alerts for prices on the route he's shopping for at fare-watching sites like Kayak.com or Farecast.com. He finds out whether discount-carrier Southwest Airlines Co. flies a route. He also checks the ticket on booking sites like Travelocity or Orbitz.

Weyer recently shopped for a flight from Greenville, N.C., to Chicago, a ticket he said commonly runs around $410 round-trip. He was tempted at $280. He eventually paid $180 on Priceline.com. Weyer figures he spent about two hours spread over a couple of days searching for the ticket.

Weyer starts shopping as far in advance as he can, but doesn't book right away. He considers it safe to book between one and three months ahead of time. Airlines post their schedules anywhere from six to 11 months in advance.

The 24-year-old Chicago college student and software programmer once flew for only $9 on Spirit Airlines from Chicago to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and says the most he has ever paid for a ticket is $240.

Forget the weekend
Having a price in mind is good advice. A sense of timing helps, too.

If you tend to make travel plans during weekend downtime, reconsider. The best time to shop is late Monday or early Tuesday, some fare experts say. Airlines often start fare sales on Sunday night or Monday morning, said Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com. Those sales alone are fine if they include the flight you want. But other carriers generally match the fare sale by Monday evening or Tuesday morning, giving you more choices.

Seaney said Wednesdays are generally the cheapest day to fly. Tuesdays and Saturdays are also good days to fly because demand is low and the airlines are trying to fill seats.

Slideshow: Awful airlines

It's natural for travelers to book their flight when the workday is done or the kids are asleep. But the airlines are posting fares on their own schedule. They file fares to the computer system that shares them among Web sites and travel agents three times each weekday — 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern time. It's 5 p.m. Eastern on Saturdays and Sundays. That means fares can change at those times, so when you do see a fare at the price you're looking for, grab it.

Former New Yorker Jill Gott of Providence, R.I., spent two and a half weeks checking American Airlines' Web site several times a day before snagging a $109 round-trip ticket between New York-LaGuardia and Atlanta. She said it was only available for about three hours before jumping back up to $250.

“I just decide what I want to pay for something, and I just keep clicking away until I get it,” she said.

What goes down ...
But shopper beware. Fares start to rise again 7 to 10 days before a flight — sometimes as long as 14 days or more, depending on the airline and sale offer. Airlines raise fares closer to the departure date because last-minute seats tend to be bought by business travelers and others who must fly at certain times.

Roger Johnson, director of revenue management at New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp., notes that it can be risky for a flier to delay buying a ticket in hopes it will be even cheaper. He says there's no good way for customers to know whether a fare sale will show up in their market.

“They would be gambling that this would happen and would probably lose out more than they would win,” he said.

AirTran Airways spokesman Tad Hutcheson said his advice is simple: “I would follow the Moscow rule of shopping — you see it, you like it, you buy it.”

Where to buy also matters. For an airline ticket alone, your best bet is an individual airline's Web site, because you'll skip the extra fees some travel Web sites charge.

But those sites don't carry Southwest fares. That means checking Southwest's Web site is a must if you're flying near a city it serves. For instance, on Feb. 24, Southwest was offering tickets on the Baltimore-Austin route for as low as $99, while Orbitz's cheapest offering was $193.

Bundle online
If you're packaging airfare, hotel and a rental car, however, consider Orbitz and Travelocity, which often discount such bundles.

Like Weyer, you can also try Priceline, where users can bid for tickets. A customer may end up with an undesirable itinerary, like flying in the wrong direction to make a connection, but the fare can sometimes be cheaper. Not all airlines, however, participate in Priceline's “name your own price” offer.

Another piece of advice — learn to love St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago O'Hare, and other hub airports where you can connect to your final destination. Nonstops are convenient, desirable — and sometimes more expensive, said George Hobica, who runs airfarewatchdog.com. That's not always the case, though, so always compare.

If travel isn't possible or desirable in the near term, don't worry. Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel Web site BestFares.com, said great fare sales are possible in the coming months for travel during the peak summer period.

“I would keep watching and watching and watching,” Parsons said. “This is a very fragile airfare system out there.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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