5 Surefire Tips for Saving on Summer Air Travel

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Summer TravelingAmericans are planning to spend more on summer travel this year – 53% of you say you'll spend upwards of $1,500, compared to 39% last year -- and I'm betting more of you will also be taking to the friendly skies. Or perhaps we should call them the not-so-friendly-and-sometimes-downright-maddening skies. You'll pay extra for nearly everything but the pleasure of a security pat down.

The biggest U.S. airlines pulled in $3.4 billion in baggage fees alone in 2011, according to the Department of Transportation. The Wall Street Journal reported that on Spirit Airlines, the average passenger paid $51.68 in non-ticket revenue for each flight segment, or a total of $103.36 above the ticket price.

As you might imagine, all that nickel and diming makes it hard to set a budget. So the best strategy, it seems, is two pronged: Shop smart, then avoid extras whenever possible. Here are five foolproof tips:

5 Surefire Tips for Saving on Summer Air Travel

Rick Seaney, the co-founder and CEO of Rick Seaney, the co-founder and CEO of FareCompare, says that many airlines put their fares on sale on Monday night or Tuesday morning, then competitors scramble to match them.

Shopping after 3 p.m. Tuesday is likely to net you the best prices. Also, expand the scope of your searches to include nearby airports, red-eye flights and different dates to get the best deal. "Price points tend to drop dramatically the last week in August, so if you can delay your trip, you can save a lot," says Seaney.

You know all the typical airfare search sites, but the best deals now may be found through social networking. Airlines have been known to post deals on Facebook or Twitter (just beware of scams). You can also sign up for email promotions on carrier websites. And sites like FareCompare and Kayak have airfare alerts to let you know when prices drop.

How do you know when the price is right? Seaney gives these guidelines for what he considers a fair deal for round-trip tickets: $150 or less for an hour flight, $210 or less for two hours, $280 or less for three, and $340 or less for over three hours.

If the flight costs more than $400 or $500 round trip, it's probably worth paying with miles. And don't forget you can share. "Anyone who has miles can get a ticket for anyone else. If you have an uncle who flies all the time, tell him you'll give him $200 if he'll book your tickets," suggests Seaney.

 Many airlines now charge you if you'd like to select a seat in advance, and United just announced that even families with small children will no longer be given priority to board first. But the remaining seats are often released 24 hours prior to the flight, says Seaney, and you can make a selection then. If that doesn't work, throw yourself at the mercy of the gate agent. Often he or she will take pity on you. Finally, don't finagle a fee-free seat and then spend $20 on lunch and snacks. Pack security-friendly (and airplane-friendly -- nothing smelly, please) foods for the trip.

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-- With Arielle O'Shea
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