Holiday travel: Using online search engines to find the cheapest flights

I’m not going to try to stir up any old controversy here. As you’ve no doubt heard, airlines are firming up their plans for the 2017 holiday travel season, most noticeably with major price hikes for August – September.

The big noise will come in the weeks leading up to Black Friday. Of course, that day isn’t coming around until November 25 this year, but some may want to book flights and hotel rooms now to lock in lower prices.

As a savvy consumer, you should run any potential deal you come across through Mint.com, a service that will find you a flight at lower prices than the price you may otherwise have paid.

There are other sites that can help you book your holiday travel: Flixster.com has smartphone apps that show hotel and flight deals, and Hipmunk.com will use you historical searches to suggest fares that are better than you usually pay. (I found a flight to San Francisco from LAX for around $420, compared to roughly $1,000 two years ago. I suspect I’ll save up to $125 per round-trip ticket.)

All these sites have a next-day feature that can help you be on the best flight to save money: At Flixster, you can type in your departure time and the destination you want to fly, and all the relevant information will appear on your screen the next day. So you can see where you might actually end up with a similar fare to see if the available deal is a better value.

You’ll certainly find some hotels that will accept lower-than-usual payment terms for the holidays, but the real savings are in the airfare. How much will you save? There are a few good places to start — use Kayak.com to locate the available lowest fares, in increments of 15 percent, using the ones ending in 9 for a more precise estimate. I searched several cities – New York, Seattle, Detroit, Philadelphia and Denver. See how I ended up with $122 round-trip from L.A. to New York – a savings of less than $50 using the most common 8-percent fare at some of the cities listed above.

I tried some competitively priced flights to Arizona, too. Over the course of several days, I found a 7-percent fare for a week starting Dec. 23 to Phoenix for around $400 per person, about $130 cheaper than it would have been just last month. I searched a week earlier using Kayak. I found flights to Phoenix for just about the same price – less than $430 for a five-day vacation. Of course, if you choose the cheaper fares to the West Coast, you’ll pay even less.

I can hardly wait to fly from DC to Austin to visit my parents next Christmas. Using Kayak.com, I discovered Southwest Airlines has the lowest fare on a three-day Thanksgiving to Austin round-trip flight. For around $489, I ended up paying a little over $300 for the flight, a good saving of about $280. Southwest might not be an obvious fit if you’re looking for low fares and a higher number of options, but it’s certainly the bargain option when you’re traveling a long distance with limited time and energy.

Sure, I might cut a few dollars from my holiday budget to pay for extra lines, gates and taxis and that’s fine. But saving 25 percent on airfare will make it worth it.

This column first appeared in the Saturday, July 23, 2011, print edition of The Washington Post.

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