Working for International Living for the past 13 years, and living and traveling back and forth from Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua and Ecuador, we've had plenty of practice at finding the best travel deals, including airfares.
The most important thing to remember is that flexibility means savings. If you can move your travel dates, departure times, and itinerary -- even just a little -- far more fares will be available to you, including those better suited to your budget.
You can fly to countries like Panama for less when you know the tricks to finding the best travel deals. (Photo: Eoin Bassett, InternationalLiving.com)
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Don't wait until the last minute. Some airlines offer early bird discounts on reservations made up to three months in advance. That doesn't mean you won't find last-minute specials offered by many airlines -- but generally, buying tickets well in advance will earn you the best discounts. But don't book too far ahead. You'll rarely find the best fare prices offered more than three months in advance.
Consider an alternate airport. You can often get less expensive flights by flying to less-trafficked airports. The low-cost airlines started this trend by using these airports, and the bigger competitors now moving in have to match the fares of these lower-cost providers.
Turn to social media for deals. Social media has a major impact on the travel industry, and especially for those hunting for the best flight deals. By making a list of the airlines you most regularly fly with and following them on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, you can act quickly on the latest deals.
Try an app. Flight apps for your mobile devices are another useful way of finding the best flight deals. The majority of the larger web-based travel companies have apps that allow you to easily search flights on a mobile device. The best include Kayak Pro, Orbitz, Priceline, and Skyscanner.
Clear your web-browsing history. Ever find a cheap flight online, only to search for it again later on that day to discover the price has skyrocketed? All booking sites record web-browsing data and some (Travelocity, for instance) use the information to increase prices when they know you are interested in a flight. Next time this happens, try clearing your web-browsing data. You may just find the original price.
Google it. Google seems to have a hand in everything these days, and more and more savvy travelers are turning to Google Flights to find the cheapest flight options. Google Flights uses ITA Software, which it acquired in 2011. This is the same software that the search engines (Kayak.com, Orbitz.com, and Bing Travel) and the major airlines (American, United, and so on) use, so it makes sense for you to use it, too, to source the best available flights. It pulls up every fare with accuracy--sometimes catching prices that prominent search engines such as Kayak will miss. The downside is that you can't book your flights directly through Google--you'll need to link out to another site.
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Frequent Flyer Loyalty Programs. Airline loyalty programs that award points toward free flights each time you fly are most advantageous for business travelers and others who do a significant amount of traveling. (We're using mileage rewards points to travel to an upcoming International Living event.) Even if you're not a frequent flyer, these programs can benefit anyone, and you shouldn't take a flight without signing up for the airline's program.
Most major airlines have a newsletter associated with their rewards program, which is a good way to understand what the program offers, rule changes, and any last-minute specials and other travel bargains. Another way to keep up to date with the latest offers is to follow the programs on Twitter or Facebook. The more memberships you have, the better your chances are of snagging a really good deal.
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Air Arabia debuted in 2003 as the first low-cost carrier to service the Middle East and jetstar airways reservations Northern Africa, and seven years later, remains the areas leading budget airline despite newcomers attempts to pilfer away budget-minded flyers. Air Arabia has stayed true to its slogan, Pay Less Fly More, keeping fares low while still providing the safe and streamlined service that it's become so reputed for. The minds behind the award-winning company continue to brainstorm new ways to keep ahead of other budget airlines their latest project, announced in June, will amp up service even more with a fourth hub in Amman, Jordan, offering direct flights to Europe, North Africa, and Asia]. Outside the airspace, in November 2010 the brand plans to debut its budget-friendly, 300-room Air Arabia Centro Hotel at Sharjah Airport, featuring an eatery, pool, and business center.
Throughout its 32 years of service, this doyen of the budget carriers has enjoyed numerous accolades for its high standards of service, and in 2010 took home its sixth Skytrax World Airline Award in the best budget airline category (in 2008 it also earned Best Cabin Crew accolades). Little wonder, given Air Berlins stance on not nickel-and-diming its passengers; offering complimentary snacks, beverages, and newspapers on-board; as well as flexible booking options that allow customers to modify flights sans the exorbitant, industry-standard change fees. For cutting-edge convenience, the MMS (Multimedia Message Service) program permits flyers to reserve a seat, check in, and have their boarding pass sent directly to their mobile phone. The airline also scores points in the family department while many budget airlines leave parents feeling like they should apologize for flying with their little ones, this carrier makes a familys flight more enjoyable with amenities like cots for infants, baby bags (filled with a bottle, bib, and nappy), toys, and special childrens' dining menus not to mention the reduced rates for children under 12.
Born of the leading Brazilian highway transportation group, Grupo Aurea, back in '01, GOL has quickly evolved into Brazil's second-largest airline, offering up some fierce competition to current lead contender, TAM. Its modernized Boeing fleet (which operates at speeds that are 12 percent faster than similar competitor models) and super-low fare policy, has coupled well with on-board niceties like a nutritious snack menu and a smartly dressed staff (two of Brazils most famous stylists, Gloria Coelho and Ricardo Almeida, designed the uniforms). Whats more, GOL has branched out for an expanding international presence, most recently in July announcing a frequent-flyer agreement with Delta thats sure to put GOL more squarely on the radar of an American clientele.
When JetBlue first took to the skies in 2000, it was a tiny two-line carrier connecting New York City to Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale. Ten years later, the airlines vast network and stellar reputation (it's held the highest ranking among low-cost carriers for customer satisfaction by JD Power & Associates for five straight years) have exploded on the aviation scene. Its on-board technology is what has really set JetBlue ahead of other budget airlines, with seat-back personal entertainment units that include 36 channels of DIRECTV, XM radio, and pay-per-view movies. Whats more, JetBlue was the first U.S. airline (back in December of '07) to offer free in-flight e-mail and messaging for Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and BlackBerrys a perk cherished (at long last) by both business and leisure travelers.
Awards have been jetting towards this Australian budget airline, including its 2009 ranking as the top Australia and New Zealand carrier in the coveted Skytraxs Best Low-Cost Airline category. Launched in 2004, the carrier's domestic and international services stretch the globe, but not your wallet, with low fares that have been known to tumble below rates of $5 one-way (not including taxes and fees). In fact, the airline along with sister carriers Jetstar Asia and Jetstar Pacific, all of which parent company Qantas has stakes in is so confident in its rates, that they've put a price-beat guarantee into place for routes to and from Singapore (and other cities) that will beat any competitor airlines rates by 10 percent. Unlike many budget airlines, Jetstar Airways also offers upgrades to StarClass on international flights, a premium seating area that's inclusive of food, drinks, and entertainment.
Part of the namesake Indian beer empire, Kingfisher launched in 2005, emerging among a new crop of privately-owned Indian airlines that offer great service, decent food, and clean, modern planes at reasonable prices others include SpiceJet and IndiGo; another, Jet Airways, is priced higher. Primarily serving Indias rapidly growing and increasingly jetstar airways reservations mobile middle class, these airlines have also transformed the average visitors India experience, largely removing those tediously slow, if romantic, train journeys from the equation. Whats more, Kingfisher finalized a contract with OneWorld in June, linking the airline to both American Airlines and British Airways frequent-flyer programs. Despite some financial problems (nothing new among budget airlines), Kingfisher continues to promise passengers the royal treatment, offering on-demand entertainment in its red leather seats (though not in its low-fare class), complimentary gourmet Indian dishes, and a choice between business, economy, or low-fare class seating (on its domestic routes).
If you ever hear a flight attendant tell passengers that if they dont know how to operate a seat belt, then you probably shouldnt be allowed in public unsupervised, you're most likely flying Kulula Air. The Johannesburg-based airline is known for its sense of humor, along with its affordable rates. Started in 2001, Kulula Air has brought budget air travel to South Africa and beyond on the African continent. Named for a Zulu (the largest South African ethnic group) word meaning light, easy, and simple, Kulula offers a full service of straightforward travel options, including car rentals, adventure outings, and even cellular phone packages. Tip: It has been rumored that wearing green onto the wildly decorated green and blue planes will get you a free Kit Kat from the comedian attendants on board (a fun perk compared to many budget airlines).
Taking speed from the road to the sky, former Formula One race-car driver Niki Lauda founded quirky discount airline NIKI in 2003. Rather than cutting luxury to conserve cost, NIKI relies on quality patron perks to keep bookings booming (it seems to have worked profits rose by 75 percent between 2008 and 2009, and NIKI added flights to six European cities to its roster in 2010). Extras include complimentary in-flight snacks that forgo the peanuts in favor of hearty sandwiches, plus entertainment options like free magazines, newspapers, TV shows, movies, and radio stations. If youd like to spend some of the money you saved on the cheap flight, indulge in their on-board store (which hocks everything from earphones to Frisbees to Swarovski jewelry). Or, eat like royalty and upgrade your food to gourmet Demel (think minced veal or yellow chicken curry a major upgrade from budget airlines' usual staples), purveyor to the Habsburg court in Vienna.
Experience Porter (established in 2006) at its prime by flying one of its classy planes out of Toronto, its hub city and the site of a sleek departure lounge touting comfy chairs--perfect for unwinding airport stress. If youd like to stay up and alert, indulge in a complimentary self-serve latte in a heated mug, or opt to get some work done at the business center, where passengers can surf the web with free wireless Internet. In-flight is truly refined: Sip a complimentary glass of beer or wine, stretch out with lots of legroom in the two seat-only configurations (no chance of being the cramped middleman), and enjoy it all in peace and quiet (aircrafts feature a noise and vibration suppression system to dull that flying buzz). Bonus features for those who cant commit or have busy travel schedules (and more proof that Porter is decidedly atypical among budget airlines): Passengers may purchase their tickets in bulk with a pre-paid Porter Pass of up to 100 one-way trips, or opt for a "Freedom Fare," which allows free flight changes all the way to the day you take off.
Aboard Virgin America, innovation, aesthetics, and comfort blend seamlessly for a flight that will make you feel like a VIP whether or not you splurge for premium seating. Its ambition to bring great service back to the skies has inspired a forward-thinking business strategy invested in style, entertainment, and relaxation, as well as the maintenance of attractively low fares. In-flight absinthe sales and a new frequent-flyer mile link with trendy hotel chain Joie de Vivre ups the cool quotient even more, but passengers need only turn on the TV to know that this is a different kind of affordable airline: The CWs Fly Girls reality show (which aired in early 2010) chronicled the lives of five Virgin America flight attendants. Onboard, indigo and violet mood lighting changes throughout the flight, responding to the time of day to help passengers relax. Expect live satellite television, 20 new pay-per-view blockbusters, more than 3,000 MP3s (plus radio and audiobooks), in-flight food ordering, gaming, and a chat function that enables seat-to-seat conversations. All photos courtesy of Wikimedia.
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