I need a Ouija Board. It's the only accessory I'm missing to sniff out bargain air fares for travelers. Just kidding -- sort of.
Going into the new year, there are plenty of tools travelers can access to predict when and where the bargains will appear. I've used most of them from time to time. Some tools work better than others. Then some stop working unexpectedly.
For frequent travelers, this may seem tedious. But let's take a look behind the curtain to see where those air fares are hiding.
First, remember this: not all the fares are filed "for public consumption." Airlines often file super-low fares to specific destinations in order to get other airlines' attention. This is the way airlines communicate with one another to get around anti-trust laws.
If we, as travelers, happen to be around when the airlines are having these high-stakes cat fights, we can scoop up some great deals.
One of my favorite new tools is an interactive air fare map at Fare Compare. Plug in your city and it pulls up prices for cities all over the U.S. -- and the world. There is a tab over on the right where you can set the maximum price. I scroll it back to $500 to reveal the bargains-o'-the-day. You also can pick your month of travel on the top bar.
This tool does not catch all of the deals. But it can give you an indicator that a battle is brewing.
Friday, for example, there was a fare from Anchorage to Vancouver, B.C. for $404 on United Airlines. Truthfully, I could only find an outbound flight on two dates: May 17 and May 20. They're United code-share flights with Air Canada, which flies a seasonal nonstop flight from Anchorage.
Also, at a glance, you can look at other deals around the Lower 48 under $500: Anchorage-Long Beach for $337 roundtrip on USAirways and Anchorage-Miami for $482 roundtrip on Continental.
If you want to actually book a ticket with the bargain fare, there are other sites that work better than Fare Compare. Often, I will check back with the airline site directly.
For specific destinations, sometimes the airline site itself is the best place to start. For example, the Condor Airlines site, is a good place to look for bargains between Anchorage and Frankfurt. In the past month, the lowest-priced tickets to Frankfurt have jumped up to more than $900 roundtrip.
If you know you want to fly on Alaska Airlines, the "low fare calendar" at the Alaska Airlines site works pretty well.
Speaking of Alaska Airlines, the "Club 49" program that they started in October is yielding some good deals. Last week, there was a $217 roundtrip fare to Barrow and a $456 rate to Phoenix from Anchorage. I'm on the edge of my seat on Monday night or Tuesday morning to see the deal-o'-the-week.
If you missed last week's deal to Phoenix, Delta still has a $476 roundtrip fare from Anchorage. And with Delta, you also get Alaska Airlines miles.
There are a number of sites that offer alerts to specific city pairs. For example, I'm on AirFareWatchDog's list for Anchorage-Minneapolis and Anchorage-Denver. With Fare Compare , I get Anchorage-Seattle alerts. Both of these sites also have feeds at Twitter (I follow both of their feeds).
Often, if I cannot get an airline site to come up with the right price on the right date, I'll tab over to Hipmunk.com and use their flexible-date tool to sniff out which dates have better rates. Hipmunk is a clever tool that lets you look at a month's worth of dates at a time.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the air fare game -- trust me on this. Remember that travel agents do this all day. And good agents have their own tricks and short cuts to offer their clients more for their money. These days, it costs about $38 for an agent to write a ticket. But if they can find the right price on the right date on the first call, you may find it's worth the money. Agents also can help you vet an operator. Or, if they are familiar with a destination, they can offer some guidance on which operators are more reliable.
I saved a bundle last week on a ticket to Montgomery, Alabama. There is no cheap or easy way to get there from here. That's a fact. On the dates I wanted, Delta wanted $792 for a coach ticket ($1,643 for first class). This is where my Alaska Airlines miles came in really handy. I could have cashed in 25,000 miles for a coach ticket. But I opted for first class at 50,000 miles.
If you've taken an Alaska Airlines flight lately, it's hard to miss the flight attendants hawking the Visa cards as they walk down the aisle. You get a 25,000-mile bonus on approval. That's enough for a ticket to Montgomery! And it's more than enough for an intra-state ticket between Anchorage and Nome or Ketchikan (15,000 miles).
It's important to have frequent flyer mileage points available, especially for last-minute travel.
So, it's time to turn down the lights, fire up the incense and get out that Ouija Board. There's no telling when or where that next batch of bargain air fares will appear -- but we'll be ready.
Flyer Talk: Check out the forums at flyertalk.com . You can zero in on the airline (Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, etc.), or jump to "mileage run deals."
InsideFlyer.com: Here's another site for frequent flyers and mileage junkies.
FrugalTravelGuy.com: This guy, Rick Ingersoll, is the king of churning credit cards to rack up bonus miles.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com. And follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/alaskatravelgrm for breaking updates.