It's always a thrill when I talk to a traveler who took advantage of a good airfare — or used a bunch of points to fly to a far-off land. But it's frustrating to hear from folks who struggle to nab a deal once they've read about it. Sometimes the deal expired. But often the bargain was just hiding in plain sight. Let's review some basic tools to help you find a good travel deal.
1. Google's ITA Matrix: This is my first stop when I'm researching airfares. The ITA software is used by all of the big airlines, including Alaska, American, United and Delta. One of the big benefits is the "calendar of lowest fares" option so you can see a month at a glance. Further, you can put in a length-of-stay spread of up to seven days. That way you can see if there's a lower fare if you stayed five days instead of six. Another important feature of this software is the ability to see the rules of a fare, including any "sell by" or "travel by" dates. These rules are not normally displayed in consumer-facing travel tools. Rather, it's reserved primarily for travel agents and airline sales agents.
Another important feature to the ITA Matrix: you cannot purchase airline tickets on the site. You have to take the information and plug it in on another site (like the airline's own website) or take it to a travel agent to write the ticket for an additional fee.
2. Google Flights: Google has improved its retail flight search/sales site. There are several powerful features to help you lock in the lowest rates. I like the "price graph" feature, where you can see at a glance how the prices change over the course of three or four months. It's easy to modify your length of stay, the specific airline and the number of stops.
Even though it's simple enough to change from a six-day to a seven-day stay, it's often necessary to search for one-way fares to see the cheapest options. This is simple in Google Flights. At the top bar where you enter your departure and destination cities, there's a button to select one-way or round trip. Then, when you find a good outbound flight, you can quickly choose to reverse the routing and show the return flights. This works best for domestic flights. For many international destinations, a one-way ticket still can be more expensive than a round-trip ticket.
You can purchase your tickets from Google Flights if you wish. Sometimes, though, the best price does not show up. So, you have to take the information from the fare display and either go to another online travel agency like Expedia or Priceline or a brick-and-mortar travel agency. Additional ticketing fees may apply.
3. Kayak's "Explore" feature: Some people really like the Kayak model of comparing prices on different websites. I don't. However, there is one feature on the Kayak site that's very helpful: the fare map. It's called the "Explore" section and you can start your search from any city. There's a "budget" slider that you can move back and forth to choose how much you're willing to pay for a ticket. And there's also a feature to choose the lowest fare for a particular month, a season or anytime.
The information provided by Kayak's map is pretty good. It's not perfect and sometimes it comes up with wacky combinations that nobody would use. But I find myself scrolling across the ocean to cities in Asia or Europe.
Once you see a fare you like, you can click on the "find flights" button next to the price. That's the moment of truth. Only about half the time does the actual price match the price that Kayak lists on its map. Then you have to check carefully to see the connections. For example, I just checked on a $297 round-trip fare between Anchorage and Las Vegas. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, the outbound flight is 9.5 hours on JetBlue, flying first to Portland, then to Long Beach and finally to Las Vegas. But it's the return routing that gets the "stinker" award: leave Las Vegas at 10:55 p.m. on Spirit, arriving in Seattle at 1:25 a.m. Then, hang around until 8:59 p.m. for the JetBlue flight back to Anchorage. Of course, you can't check your bags all the way through, but with your 19.5-hour layover at SEA-TAC, you've got plenty of time to pick them up and re-check them. The whole package is sold on Kayak by CheapOair.
So, this is not exactly a "bait and switch" situation. But it's common for Kayak to display fares that either are unavailable or undesirable.
4. On-demand fare alerts: Many websites, including Kayak, offer to send out alerts if a fare drops between two cities. For example, if you're searching for tickets between Anchorage and Los Angeles, a little window will pop up offering to send you an alert. This can be handy. FareCompare.com also sends out alerts when prices change. Airfare Watchdog is another company that can send you an alert when prices change. Kayak, Airfare Watchdog and FareCompare.com offer these alerts for free.
5. Daily airfare deal reports: I'm a big fan of a site called TheFlightDeal.com. Every day, these folks dig through the millions of fare changes to find a few good deals. Then, they send out an email. Very rarely will I see Alaska destinations mentioned. Last week, though, the site picked up on one of Alaska Air's "Club 49" deals to Newark, New Jersey, for $399 round trip. Of course, they can't post every single deal in their short emails, which include nine or 10 deals each day. But the city pairs often are clues of bigger fare sales which may include Alaska. Just last week, TheFlightDeal.com listed a deal from Los Angeles to Shanghai on Delta, United and American for $548 round trip. That was a good price, so I clicked over to Google Flights to see if any deals were available from Anchorage. Sure enough, Delta and United were offering flights to Shanghai for $572 round trip.
6. Individual airline websites: If you know you want to fly on one airline (like Alaska Air), just go to the website for the best results. At Alaska's website, it's easy to toggle back and forth between money and miles if you want to use your Mileage Plan points. And the month-at-a-glance feature is helpful. Delta's site has a five-week display to see the lowest fare and it's easy to click through to the next month.
Finding a good airfare is pretty easy. Finding a truly great airfare may take a little more time and effort — but it's worth it!