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Landing best fare takes skill

| Saturday, June 18, 2011

NEW YORK -- Searching for airfares often seems to be a game passengers are set up to lose.

Prices change from day to day, even minute to minute. Scouring multiple websites for the best deal can be overwhelming. Once you book, there's no guarantee you got the best price.

"You just don't know when to pull the trigger. It's not like buying anything else I can think of," said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

Harriet Levy paid $179 for a recent round-trip flight on American Airlines between New York and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sitting just one row behind her, Shirley Harrison paid $215. A few rows back, Ellis and Dianne Traub paid $317 each. There were at least 12 fares on the flight, ranging from $169 to $360.

"There's no rhyme or reason to it," Harrison said.

Fares can fluctuate significantly within hours. One Delta flight from New York to Los Angeles jumped from $755 to $1,143 from a Friday to Saturday in late April, then fell to $718 on Sunday.

The flight was one of a dozen The Associated Press tracked over three months for a July 16-22 vacation. The No. 1 finding: Avoid booking tickets on weekends. It's the most expensive time to buy.

There's no way to guarantee the best fare. But before booking, travelers should heed this advice:

• Book on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That's when airlines most often offer sales.

• Buy in advance, but not too early. The best time is four to six weeks before traveling. In general, prices for any given flight are highest eight to 10 weeks and two to three weeks in advance.

• Embrace social media. Airlines are giving more benefits, like exclusive sales, to travelers who interact with them on Twitter and Facebook. Those specials are often gone within hours.

• The so-called discount airlines -- JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest and Frontier -- adjust fares less frequently than other airlines, so you can feel more confident locking in a price. But their prices aren't always the lowest.

Researching multiple airlines' fares is the only way to get a good deal.

It wasn't always this complicated. Before the airlines were deregulated in 1978, airfares were approved by the government. Prices were consistent and printed in timetables.

But it wasn't always this cheap, either. The average round-trip ticket in 1978 cost almost $600 in today's dollars, compared with $316 today.

There can be as many as 20 prices on any given flight. Airline executives say that that helps them boost revenue by 3 to 6 percent. If they price tickets too low, the airline can lose money. If prices are too high, seats go unsold.

"If that seat goes out empty, we can't put it on the shelf and sell it the next day," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith. "A seat that goes unfilled is like a banana that instantly spoils on takeoff."

Additional Information:

Booking tips

There's no way to guarantee the best fare. But before booking, travelers should heed this advice:

-- Book on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That's when airlines most often offer sales.

-- Buy in advance, but not too early. The best time is four to six weeks before traveling. In general, prices for any given flight are highest eight to 10 weeks and two to three weeks in advance.

-- Embrace social media. Airlines are giving more benefits, like exclusive sales, to travelers who interact with them on Twitter and Facebook. Those specials are often gone within hours.

-- The so-called discount airlines -- JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest and Frontier -- adjust fares less frequently than other airlines, so you can feel more confident locking in a price. But their prices aren't always the lowest.

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