As Planes Fly Full, the Price of Comfort Spikes

Posted March 27, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

If you've been finding air travel increasingly uncomfortable lately, you're not alone.  A just-released report from the DOT confirms that load factors for U.S. airlines reached all-time highs in 2014. 

For the year, U.S. carriers' planes on average flew 83.4 percent full.  That's over the airlines' entire networks.  On domestic routes, load factors averaged 84.5 percent, also a record.  International load factors were 81.0 percent for the year, slightly off the record, 82.3 percent, set in 2013.

Numbers, numbers, numbers.  What they tell is a good news-bad news story.

Related: 9 Tips for Surviving the Middle Seat

Full planes are, of course, good news for the airlines.  Operationally, it means their principal assets are being used at optimal efficiency.  And it goes hand-in-hand with optimal profitability, as the airlines' glowing 2014 financial results attest.

For flyers, full planes are a nightmare, especially when the crowding is compounded by the trend toward slimline seats and less legroom.  With cabins virtually full on more popular routes, flying coach becomes an exercise in claustrophobia management and self-control.

Related: How to Survive a Red-Eye Flight

What's a flyer to do?  No-cost options include flying on airlines that at least feature a scooch more legroom, like JetBlue (which averages 34 inches of seat pitch) or Virgin America or Southwest (with 32-inch pitch seats), and steering clear of United (30 inches) and Spirit (28 inches).

You might get lucky and be able to book a bulkhead or exit-row seat.  But those are in short supply, and they are increasingly priced as extra-fee services.

Use miles to upgrade to a cushier seat?  That's an option, but no longer a cost-free one.  Today, most programs impose a cash surcharge on mileage upgrades—as much as $500 each way on international flights.

Related: 10 Pro Tips for Surviving a Long Flight

For some, the get-out-of-jail card is booking a seat in premium economy, with a few extra inches of legroom.  Nice, but they can command significantly higher prices than cattle-car coach seats.

Obviously there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of balancing costs and comfort.  But for most, the financial fact is that an acceptable level of comfort comes with a higher price tag.  More good news for the airlines...

Read the original story: As Planes Fly Full, the Price of Comfort Spikes by Tim Winship, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

The Sneaky New Way Airlines Are Raising Fares

Posted March 25, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Fare bundling is the increasingly common airline practice of offering different levels of economy fares that provide different combinations of features at different prices. And like so many changes to the airline industry, bundling will help airlines more than consumers.

Most carriers charge for a laundry list of formerly free services, such as checked baggage, advance seat assignments, onboard snacks and beverages, pillows and blankets, ticket changes, early boarding, and access to seats in rows with extra legroom or seats near the front of the plane. Now, airlines are reassembling some of these extras into tiers or bundles and giving the clusters brand names like Comfort Plus or Choice Essential. Some smaller airlines have been doing this for several years, but more recently, major U.S. carriers are catching onto the idea.

Brand variations typically involve varying frequent-flyer benefits as well as varying extras. Lines that base earnings on fare payments rather than miles automatically award minimal miles to travelers on the lowest fares. Airlines that base awards on miles typically award reduced miles to lowest-brand travelers. Air Canada, for example, awards only 25 percent of the miles flown within Canada to travelers on its least expensive Tango fare brand.

Related: 7 Secrets to Booking Ultralow Airfares

Southwest has been bundling its fare options for some time, with tiered fares offering different change fees, boarding options, onboard beverage inclusions, and frequent-flyer earnings. Several other airlines bundle in similar ways. Hawaiian and Virgin America bundle some extras with their options for increased-legroom seating. Here's an overview of the bundling practices of some major airlines.

Delta

Delta rolled out a new Basic Economy fare that is completely nonrefundable. Seats are assigned only at check-in, and even elite frequent flyers aren't eligible for the usual upgrade privileges with this fare bundle. Delta says that Basic Economy fares are available in "selected markets," which you can probably read as "where we compete with Frontier or Spirit."

Beyond that, Main Cabin gives you Delta's usual economy product, and Comfort+ includes extra-legroom seating, priority boarding, premium snacks, and complementary beverages.

Related: Worst Shoes for Travel

American

American is the best example among the giant airlines, offering the most significantly differentiated options. On domestic routes, when you enter your origin and destination cities, the initial fare display posts three different nonrefundable economy-class bundles. For Chicago-to-Boston round-trips in mid-April, American displays the following options:

  • Choice costs $169 and provides only the ticket.
  • Choice Essential costs an extra $80 in addition to the base fare and includes one checked bag and early boarding.
  • Choice Plus adds $182 to the base and includes "Essential" features plus no ticket-change fee, a 50 percent frequent-flyer mileage bonus, a same-day change to a different flight, a same-day standby for an earlier flight, and premium beverages.

Beyond the initial display, one tab shows the same three brand names but with fully refundable fares, starting at $601 for Choice and adding the two higher levels with same features at slightly lower price increments. A second tab shows nonrefundable and flexible options for first class.

For now, American bundles only domestic fares. But there's no reason it couldn't brand international flights as well.

Related: 9 Things You Should Never Wear on a Plane

International Carriers

Lufthansa and Finnair are bundling fares for local European flights. Air Canada and WestJet have been bundling American for several years, with fare differences associated with changes and cancellations, frequent-flyer earnings, baggage charges, and such. Air Canada extends bundling to its long-haul international flights.

What's in It for the Airlines?

One word: more. Airlines bundle because it increases their total revenue. Yes, a branded fare can cost less than the base fare plus the other components if you bought them separately. But airlines are betting that passengers who wouldn't buy all the components separately will buy a branded bundle.

For example, American's Choice ticket includes a base fare, a checked bag, and early boarding for an extra $80 round-trip. Sans bundle, you'd pay $50 for a checked bag and $30–$80 for early boarding (the price varies by flight) round-trip, for a total of $80–$130.

The main reason for buying priority boarding is early access to the always-overstuffed overhead bins. But if you check your bag, you don't need to worry about finding bin space, so priority boarding isn't worth $30–$80; if you buy early boarding, you can pass on the checked bag. The bundle looks good only if you have two big bags. American figures that more passengers will buy the bundle than would buy both one checked bag and early boarding separately.

Related: Europe's Cheapest Cities in 2015

When American first started bundling, the Choice option included not only the checked bag and early boarding but also no change fee, and it was priced at $68 rather than $80. But now, the reduced benefit is offset by the higher price. How's that for customer service?

Some bundles may look a bit better than others. But the big gain for the airlines is getting you to pay for something you normally would not buy as a separate option. That's especially attractive for those options that don't actually cost the airline anything. Charges for advance seat selection, early boarding, carry-on bags, and exit-row seating amount to pure profit.

On an old-time comedy program, the straight man asked the comedian what project he was working on, and he replied, "Something that I can make for a dime, sell for a dollar, and is habit forming." Today's airlines make that comedian's project look small-time. Airlines routinely sell something that costs nothing for many dollars. What a business!

Related: 10 Worst People You Meet at the Airport

Another Big Reason Airlines Bundle

At one point, airlines employed bundling for another reason: The full range of options was only available to the public through the airlines' own websites. Recently, however, Expedia, which now controls a huge part of the OTA space, announced it would start selling branded airfare bundles from "selected" airlines. In this case you can read "selected" as meaning "any airline that will let us." And given Expedia's clout, that probably means most of them.

Other airlines will quickly adopt bundling as soon as they can develop fare buckets that will increase their total profits and they can program their information systems to handle the new fare systems. Apparently, the resource problem is the bigger barrier; developing the tiered fares is as easy as copying American or Air Canada.

It's hard to see how United will stay out of the bundling game for long. And Alaska is likely to follow, along with some of the smaller airlines.

Related: What Not to Wear in the Airport Security Line

The Takeaway

More airfare branding is almost certainly in your future. So the approach is obvious: For any trip, determine the price of the fare brand that includes the features that are important to you, then price the fare and the extras you want separately and choose whichever total is least expensive. Make sure you account for whatever extras your frequent-flyer status or credit card might provide. You aren't likely to win the game this way, but at least you won't lose.

Read the original story: The Sneaky New Way Airlines Are Raising Fares by Ed Perkins, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Frustrated Businessman with Head in Hands via Shutterstock)

When Spending a Little More Is a Good Idea

Posted March 23, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

You can obsess so much about finding the "cheapest" air ticket that you may overlook cases when you'd be better off spending a little more.

Checked Bags

You pay $25 to check a bag for most domestic trips these days, and sometimes that's a good idea. Sure, you can schlep a big bag to the gate and onto the plane—then fight with everyone else for a spot in an overhead bin that's already full—without paying extra. But avoiding those long schleps and the fight for space is often worth $25, especially when you're on an itinerary that requires connecting at a mega-hub such as Atlanta or O'Hare. These days, I always check when I have to connect so I don't have to race from one remote gate to another, hauling my large suitcase and laptop. And, at least in my recent experience, airlines have become really good at getting baggage to the claim area quickly.

Related: 11 Must-Haves for Your Carry-on Bag

Nonstop Flights

On many routes, you pay more for a nonstop flight than for a connecting itinerary. But connecting at a hub airport almost always adds at least two hours to your total time, increases the chances of encountering weather or another problem, and adds yet another level of hassle and stress. A nonstop flight is worth more than connections—that's why the airlines can charge more for a nonstop—but the nonstop is often worth the money.

Related: How to Get a Refund on a Non-Refundable Flight

Fly JetBlue

JetBlue provides a measurably better coach/economy product than any other domestic airline. Its fares are usually competitive with other lines, but even when JetBlue is a little more expensive, the superior product is usually well worth the small difference.

Related: 7 Ways to Get a Free Upgrade

Fly Southwest

If you prefer to check a bag or two, Southwest's "two bags free" policy means that it's a better deal, even when its round-trip fares are almost $50 to $100 higher than the competition—and Southwest usually isn't that much more expensive.

Related: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers

Extra-Legroom Seats

American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian (A330s only), and United offer a few rows of regular coach/economy seats with three to four extra inches of seat spacing. Everyone talks about "legroom," but the real difference is room to read or work at the table and shoulder levels. The cost varies by flight and demand, but it's usually less than $100 on even a transcontinental flight, and that extra room can make a coach flight much less miserable than usual.

Related: 6 Ways to Get the Best Coach Seat Every Time

Global Entry

When you return to the United States from a foreign country, membership in Global Entry permits you to bypass the long customs and immigrations lines you sometimes encounter. You have to pass a one-time screening process and pay $100 for five years of eligibility. But even if you travel internationally only once a year, bypassing the entry hassle each time can easily be worth $20 per trip to you.

Related: 7 Surprising Things You Don't Have to Sneak Through Security

Trusted Traveler

Reserved security lanes at most big airports supposedly get Trusted Travelers through security screening more quickly than other travelers. In my experience, that advantage is problematic: I've been through airports where the Trusted Traveler lanes moved more slowly than the general public lane, and the actual screening process seems to be almost identical. I wouldn't pay for Trusted Traveler by itself. But Global Entry automatically makes you a Trusted Traveler, so overall it's a minor additional improvement.

Related: 10 Surprising Ways to Get Flagged at Customs

Real Premium Seats

The price differential between regular and premium economy on a long intercontinental flight is usually hundreds of dollars, and the difference between economy and business class is thousands. Both are hard to justify in terms of cost per hour. But sometimes you find special promotions for premium economy or business class that narrow the price gap to an acceptable level. Premium economy is a big improvement and business class is a huge improvement over regular economy, so keep your eyes out for promotions that let you fly in comfort. The main downside is that you'll never want to fly regular economy again.

Related: 10 Free Things You Can Get on a Plane

Read the original story: When Spending a Little More Is a Good Idea by Ed Perkins, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Airplane Ticket and Passport via Shutterstock)

One Easy Way to Fit Everything in a Carry-on

Posted March 20, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

I'm tired of draping my coat over my expandable 25-inch suitcase in an attempt to hide it from airline employees. Yes, I am that person. My bag exists on the fringe of airline carry-on size limits. But I have a plan to change. I'm going to ditch my large luggage and travel the world with a tiny 18-inch spinner with which I can zip past even the most fastidious gate agent.

How? With space bags, also known as compression bags. I've used them before. But over the past few years, I had forgotten about the handy little wonders and switched back to the sit-on-the-suitcase method for successful packing.

Related: The Ultimate Packing List

It is time to use space bags once again. Last year, several major airlines reduced their carry-on size limits, rendering my 25-inch spinner too big to bring on some planes. (You can check your airline's size requirements with our Ultimate Guide to Airlines Fees.) I tend to pack a generous amount of clothes, but I hate checking bags almost as much as I hate sitting in front of the nine-year-old who thinks my seat is a soccer ball. Space bags are the solution to my problem.

First, a caveat: Space bags allow you to fit an amazing quantity of clothes into a suitcase, thereby making your bag kettlebell-heavy. Watch out for airline weight limits, and buy a portable luggage scale if you want to be safe. That said, space bags are the number-one way to fit more clothes than you ever thought possible into a suitcase.

Related: 10 Packing Mistakes You'll Definitely Regret

Here's how they work: You place your clothes in the bag, then you suck the air out. Methods for air removal vary by type of space bag: Some bags require a vacuum, while others work by rolling and pushing down on the bag to release the air. The latter is best for travel, obviously.

Once the air is removed from the bag, your clothes will be compacted into a tiny, hard lump. Sure, they may get wrinkled. So pack a travel-size Downy Wrinkle Releaser and no problemo.

Related: 9 Packing Tips for Lazy People

I like the Eagle Creek Compression Sac Set, which you can get on Amazon for 20 bucks. You remove the excess air from this bag by rolling, so you don't need to find a vacuum. Other options are this Samsonite Luggage Kit, which includes 12 bags, and these Ziploc-brand space bags.

Have you used space bags when traveling?

Read the original story: One Easy Way to Fit a Ton of Stuff into a Tiny Bag by Caroline Costello, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Getty Images/Seb Oliver)

These Summer Europe Flights Are Insanely Cheap

Posted March 18, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

This airline has some of the cheapest summer flights to Europe I've seen this year—but there's a catch. And it's a big one.

Low-cost transatlantic carrier Wow, based in Iceland, is selling extremely affordable fares to Europe for spring and summer travel. I've written about Wow before, but I stumbled upon their bargain-priced offerings again today while searching for a ticket across the pond. For a trip from Newark to Paris in May, Wow kills the competition with flights from $321.40 each way. In July, you can jet to London for as little as $395.68 each way. That's quite a deal.

But if you're searching for a flight using traditional mainstream online booking channels or aggregators like Expedia or Kayak, you're going to miss out on some key info on your plane ticket. Wow keeps fares bargain-basement low via a la carte pricing. Most of the little extras that would normally be included in the cost of an international ticket on a major airline—from seat selection to carry-on bags—cost extra with Wow.

Related: Why You Should Book Your Flight Exactly 54 Days in Advance

Those extra fees are annoying. However, even if you add $14 for a seat near the front of the plane, $67 for a checked bag, and $38 for an oversize carry-on, sometimes Wow tickets are still the best deals. You just have to be willing to do the math.

Here's the problem: When I tried booking a Wow flight on Expedia, I was offered very few details on Wow's many ancillary charges. In a box titled, "Important Flight Information," Expedia links over to an estimated baggage fees chart with incorrect checked-bag costs listed in euros, and no other information. Expedia does not tell me that I need to pay to select my seat. Expedia does not tell me that heavy purses and carry-on bags of more than 15 lbs. will incur a fee. Most importantly, Expedia does not mention that most of Wow's ancillary fees cost way more if you wait to pay for them at the airport. Expedia covers its butt with this avowal: "Exceptions may apply, so you should use the link below or contact the airline for more information."

Related: 7 Secrets to Booking Ultralow Airfares

One checked bag for a flight from the U.S. to Europe paid for during the booking process costs $67 each way. Buy it at the airport and the price jumps to $86. At the gate, you'll pay $124. An extra-legroom seat costs $33 during the booking process. At the airport, it costs $38. You'll always want to book your Wow checked bags and make your seat selections during the reservation process. And you can only do this, it appears, when you book with Wow.

Bottom line: Buy Wow via Expedia or any other third-party aggregator and you'll miss the chance to book your bags and buy your seats at the lowest prices. Search for fares however you want to search for fares. (We recommend our own fare alerts, of course.) Book Wow directly though the airline's website.

One more thing: You'll want to pay that extra five bucks for a shot at the seating chart if you don't want to be stuck in the middle seat on a transatlantic flight.

Related: 9 Places That Are Surprisingly Cheap This Year

Read the original story: These Summer Europe Flights Are Insanely Cheap (But There's One Little Problem) by Caroline Costello, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Amsterdam, Netherlands via Shutterstock)

Europe's 20 Cheapest Cities in 2015

Posted March 18, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Vilnius, Lithuania via Shutterstock)

You've heard it a lot in the last few months: Europe is cheaper than it's been in a long time. The time to go is now. But Europe is a big place. So where should you visit to make the most of the strong dollar?

Every year, PriceofTravel.com updates its Europe 3-Star Traveler Index. It's a snapshot of the current cheapest cities in Europe for budget-minded travelers, based on the daily cost of a well-reviewed three-star hotel room in a central location, two cab rides, entry to a cultural attraction, and three meals and three drinks per day.

Here are the cheapest European cities for budget travelers this year.

Bucharest, Romania

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $43.80/day

For an intriguing look at the political and cultural extremes of Romania's history, check out Bucharest's Palace of Parliament, Village Museum, and Cotroceni Palace, each of which will give you a different sense of the Romanian experience.

Related: 9 Places That Are Surprisingly Cheap This Year

Sofia, Bulgaria

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $44.71/day

Sofia mingles urban charm with natural beauty. The architecturally rich city is one of Europe's oldest, with cobblestone boulevards and, in the warmer months, an alfresco cafe culture that invites travelers to stay awhile.

Kiev, Ukraine

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $46.35/day

Now may not be the time to visit Eastern Ukraine (read the State Department's latest warning for full details), but capital city Kiev—located squarely in the middle of the country—is still welcoming visitors with its incredibly good exchange rate and World Heritage sites.

Related: Wonderful Things to Experience in Canada

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $49.10/day

Travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination worth the extra effort of getting there will love Cesky Krumlov. The medieval river town is friendly, ultra-affordable, and full of fascinating historical sights.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $50/day

East meets West in Sarajevo, where low prices reign in 2015. More than a decade after war, the city has been almost entirely reconstructed and is once again a lively and welcoming place. And there's no beating its proximity to gorgeous nature—nearby dense forests and alpine lakes make for an easy day trip.

Related: Best Dream Trips for 2015

St. Petersburg, Russia

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $50.48/day

For the last decade, St. Petersburg has been earning a reputation as a pricey destination. But with the weakened Russian ruble, Russia's most beautiful city has become a budget bucket lister's dream.

Budapest, Hungary

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $51.06/day

Budapest has long been a magnet for budget travelers, and it continues to offer an incredible experience at an affordable price. Get off the tourist track to find authentic and affordable food and hotels, and embrace coffee houses and thermal baths to discover the best of the city.

Related: Destinations to Watch in 2015

Krakow, Poland

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $52.36/day

PriceofTravel.com says Krakow is "easily among the best bargains in Europe," citing its historic center and "weirdly low" prices as perfect excuses for making the journey. One of the first World Heritage cities to be designated by UNESCO, the 13th-century merchants' town is home to Europe's largest market square and a hilltop palace.

Belgrade, Serbia

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $53.52/day

Belgrade stands out for the relatively high quality of accommodations, even in lower price ranges. The city's architecture—which ranges from Byzantine to art nouveau—tells the story of its past, while its beach and nightclub-river-barge culture gives it a youthful edge.

Related: 10 (Almost) Free Travel Deals

Split, Croatia

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $62.08/day

Cheap, easy to reach, and flourishing with a rich local culture, Split is where anyone looking for a Croatian slice-of-life should go for vacation. Its seaside location makes it an ideal jumping-off point for exploring the country's famed islands.

Zagreb, Croatia

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $64.92/day

Another Croatian gem, Zagreb's inland location shelters it from the surf-and-sand crowd and keeps prices low. Its charming old city center and thriving arts-and-culture scene means there's plenty to do, even on a budget.

Related: 7 Trends That Will Shape How You Travel in 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $65.88/day

While most of the destinations on the 3-Star Traveler Index require extra effort on the transportation front, Vilnius is different. The capital is a rising star for European budget airlines, which deliver people directly to the city from other major European airports.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $68.39/day

Just a stone's throw from pricey Vienna, Slovakia's Bratislava offers plenty of historic charm without inflated prices. Cobblestone streets and a thriving cafe scene keep things quaint, while the city's towering UFO Observation Deck gives it a futuristic spin.

Related: 6 Ways to Humiliate Yourself in Europe

Santorini Island, Greece

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $69.49/day

Santorini—and indeed the Greek islands in general—is a great deal this year, as long as you're not visiting in July and August, when prices jump to take full advantage of the high demand. Gorgeous scenery, affordable food and drink, and reasonable accommodations rates make it worth the ferry ride.

Riga, Latvia

Daily 3-Star Traveler Index: $69.94/day

Riga is finding its way into the mainstream with the introduction of low-cost flights from budget European carriers. Even so, this UNESCO-recognized city with its famed art nouveau center remains among the most affordable spots in Europe.

Related: 10 Exotic Beach Resorts for Under $200

More Affordable European Cities This Year

The Europe 3-Star Traveler Index includes 56 cities. Here are the destinations that round out the top 20:

  • Tenerife, Spain: $70.05/day
  • Prague, Czech Republic: $74.67/day
  • Istanbul, Turkey: $77.07/day
  • Warsaw, Poland: $77.66/day
  • Moscow, Russia: $77.71/day

 

Read the original story: "Europe's Cheapest Cities This Year" by Christine Sarkis, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

When Is the Best Time to Buy Your Flight?

Posted March 13, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

For at least two decades, industry experts have been speculating about basic timing factors in finding the lowest airfares. The big question: When is the best time to buy plane tickets? So far, nobody has been able to come up with definitive answers that stand the test of time for very long. But that doesn't stop them from trying. There are numbers-based guidelines touted by travel experts. And there are tools and data that can help you ascertain the right time to buy. Here's the latest information on mastering the art of airfare booking.

Related: Why You Should Book Your Flight Exactly 54 Days in Advance

How Far in Advance Should I Book My Flight?

Several sources publish data on the correlation between advance purchase period and airfares. The ideal time to buy a domestic ticket is 54 days in advance, says CheapAir, or seven weeks ahead, says Expedia, which are essentially the same findings. For international trips, the ideal period is 171 days ahead of departure, according to the same Expedia report. CheapAir refines the estimates: 96 days before trips to Europe and 96 days prior to Latin America trips. Both sources indicate that you can come close to the absolute lowest price over a wide range of dates: CheapAir's "window" for good deals on domestic tickets is 27–114 days in advance; Expedia's window is 50–100 days.

Avoid booking too early and too late. Too late is especially bad; you pay a huge premium for buying within a week or two of departure—even on airlines that nominally assess no advance-purchase limit.

Related: 6 Ways to Get the Best Coach Seat on an Airplane

What Time of Day Should I Book My Flight?

According to urban legend, you should buy on Tuesday mornings because airlines dump new fares and seat allocations on Monday nights. It's also rumored that travelers shouldn't buy on weekends, as consumers lap up the seats allocated to the lowest fare buckets on Saturdays and Sundays, leaving less low-priced inventory.

Here's what George Hobica, founder of our sister site Airfarewatchdog, says: "No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading any more than we can predict the stock market."

Hobica's blog points to a quote from an airline revenue manager on the subject: "To say that there is one time of the day or one day of the week that is better than another is false. Plus, fares are so dynamic, since they are based on market conditions and the actual number of passengers who are currently booked on a specific flight, that they can change rapidly at any time."

But the manager goes on to contradict himself a little bit: "Many airlines tend to announce sales on a Monday, leading other airlines to match certain fares the following day, but this is not a hard and fast rule."

Related: When to Book, Fly, and More: Tips for Perfect Travel Timing

When Do Plane Tickets Go on Sale?

The best time to buy an airline ticket is when it's on sale; that means you have to stay on top of the airline marketplace. Airfare sales crop up at random times. Typically, the purchase window is short—sometimes just one day, often a few days to a week—but the sale fares are usually good for a month or more.

As Hobica puts it, "Pounce when there's a deal." And remember: With almost all U.S. airlines, you can cancel your ticket within 24 hours of booking at no charge. Even if you've already bought your fare, you can keep looking for a better offer within that 24-hour window.

Related: 7 Secrets to Booking Ultralow Airfares

How Do I Stay on Top of Fare Sales?

Unless you enjoy the prospect of spending much of every day searching airline and OTA websites, the best way to keep on top of airfare sales is to subscribe to one or more airfare alerts. You have a range of choices. And we can help. Start with our own free fare alerts, our sister site BookingBuddy, and Airfarewatchdog's famous fare alerts. In addition, many individual airlines, big OTAs, and metasearch systems offer airfare alerts or promotional bulletins.

Keep two important factors in mind when you search: First, Southwest fares are not available from any OTA or metasearch system; you can get these alerts from the SmarterTravel, BookingBuddy, and Airfarewatchdog links above or from Southwest directly. Second, any time a big airline announces a sale, competitors usually match it, at least where they compete directly, within 24 hours. So always take some time to shop around before you book.

Related: 9 Tips for Surviving the Middle Seat

What Are Some Other Ways to Get Fare Alerts?

You can get fare alerts directly from your favorite carrier. Many airlines offer weekly or periodic email notifications of special sales and other useful information. It's a good idea to set up alerts from an airline with which you frequently fly, especially if you collect miles.

Many OTAs and metasearch systems also offer regular airfare-deal bulletins, including the two giants, Expedia and Priceline.

Or download an app. Airfarewatchdog and Skyscanner are two apps that tell you when to buy.

Related: 9 Places That Are Surprisingly Cheap This Year

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title When Should I Buy My Flight?   Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

(Photo: Ticking Clock via Shutterstock)

8 Insanely Cheap Spring Destinations

Posted March 11, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Marrakech via Shutterstock)

Spring is our favorite season for great travel deals. There's simply no beating that perfect combination of pleasant weather and low prices. Whether you're looking to squeeze in some late-season skiing, celebrate spring in style, or head to the beach, you can do it for less. We've monitored trends, industry news, currencies, and sale patterns to point you in the direction of places that offer the best bargains and low-season pricing for the coming season.

Related: 9 Places That Are Surprisingly Cheap Now

(Photo: Washington, D.C. via Shutterstock)

Washington, D.C.

In our opinion, spring is the absolute best time to go to Washington, D.C. The weather is Goldilocks perfect (not too cold, not too hot), the crowds are manageable, and the city is awash in cherry blossoms. This spring, we're seeing discounted airfare to nearby airports plus plenty of hotel deals that make a spring jaunt to D.C. a bargain traveler's dream.

Marriott's spring deal helps travelers make the most of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which takes place this year between March 20 and April 15, with air-inclusive two-night vacation packages starting at $359 per person. Destination DC has rounded up spring hotel sales from around the city. And American, Delta, and United have all recently offered discounted flights to D.C. and are likely to continue with similar sales throughout spring.

Related: The Most Indulgent Brunch Spot in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Costa Rica via Shutterstock)

Costa Rica

Each year, another Latin America destination is called "the next Costa Rica." This spring, we're calling Costa Rica the next Costa Rica. With plenty of air, hotel, and vacation-package deals and brand-new flights from Southwest, it's an affordable paradise just waiting to be discovered.

Southwest kicks off new service to Costa Rica with flights connecting Baltimore and San Jose starting on March 7. The airline says it expects to offer fares up to 40 percent lower than competing airlines on the route. And Costa Rica is included in Southwest's beach hotels sale, with nightly rates starting at $58.

Related: 10 Best Places to Go in Costa Rica

(Photo: Marrakech via Shutterstock)

Marrakech, Morocco

Shoulder-season visitors can explore the city's bustling souks, soothing hammams, and lush tropical gardens under the gentle warmth of a spring sun. Depending on exactly when you go, you probably won't encounter swimming pool weather in Marrakech, but you'll almost definitely experience balmy, bright springtime conditions.

You'll also save money by traveling in spring, especially compared to higher summer prices. Flights, for example, are, across the board, cheaper during springtime. A search for round-trip flights from Newark to Marrakech on Kayak turned up May tickets for as low as $752 round-trip; compare this with high summer ticket prices, which start at about $900 for travel on the same route in mid-July.

No matter the season, Marrakech is a great destination for grabbing luxurious hotel rooms at less-than-posh prices. The place has ample reasonably priced, elegant boutique properties, often called riads, which are small hotels in buildings originally constructed as private homes. At the Riad Star, for example, nightly rates start at about $215 throughout the year. This historical property is the former home of Josephine Baker, and it features a plunge pool in a gorgeous lobby atrium, an on-site hammam, and traditional Moroccan breakfast included in the rate.

Related: Great Food Markets Around the World

(Photo: London via Shutterstock)

London, United Kingdom

Vacationers might flock to the Eurozone countries to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate, but don't rule out the pound sterling when you're looking for a good deal this spring. Impressive discounts on airfare and vacation packages put London in the top spot for bargain hunters this upcoming season.

All-business-class airline La Compagnie is promoting new service between New York and London with fares from $1,007 round-trip. Now, even for an economy seat, that's a pretty good price, but you're getting lie-flat seats, lounge access, and the rest of the business-class experience. When we checked out the deal recently we found that seats are limited but available. American and Go-Today both have well-priced air-and-hotel deals, with rates starting at around $1,100 per person for four-night packages.

Related: 8 Little-Known Alternatives to London's Top Attractions

(Photo: Universal Orlando Resort)

Orlando, Florida

Warning, caveat ahead. Orlando is a great bargain destination this spring … except during spring break. The Florida city best known as a theme park hub will see a sharp, painful spike in prices during the most popular spring-vacation weeks in March and early April. But from mid-April through the beginning of June, deals reign in the Magic Kingdom and beyond.

US Airways Vacations has 35 percent off Universal Orlando Resort vacation packages of three nights or more. And while Disney increased its prices on February 22, Visit Orlando will continue to offer tickets at the lower price until March 2. The site lists other savings as well, including discount attractions tickets to other parks and savings on food, transportation, activities, and more with its free Magicard.

Related: 10 Best Places to Go in Florida

(Photo: Oslo via Nanisomiva/Shutterstock.com)

Oslo, Norway

Oslo is a notoriously expensive destination. In fact, the city made our list of 10 Places in Europe You Never Thought You Could Afford last year. So if you want to see Oslo without blowing your travel budget, low season—especially this year—is the prime time. The krone has lost 26 percent against the dollar since June. With the U.S. dollar holding strong against the declining krone, Oslo may be cheaper than it's been in quite a while.

According to a TripAdvisor survey of hotel-room prices, Norway's rooms are 17 percent less expensive this year compared to 2014. Add to that the lower-than-usual seasonal pricing, and you've got a bargain-priced stay. For example, at The Thief, April stays start at 2,190 krone (about $284) per night, compared to 3,190 krone (about $414) in May.

Related: 10 Places in Europe You Never Thought You Could Afford

(Photo: Lake Tahoe via Shutterstock)

Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada

Earning a place on this list with an unbeatable combination of new air service and great deals, Reno and nearby Lake Tahoe deliver what we'll call the three-season win: cold-weather activities like skiing, plus the beginning of summer activities like river kayaking, all packaged into pleasant spring days.

JetBlue starts new service from New York City to Reno on May 28, marking the first time in a long time that East Coasters have had direct access to the splendor of Tahoe. While the introductory fares of $89 each way for spring flights are no longer available, the debut of the route will likely keep prices competitive from New York. Hotels and resorts around the lake have spring specials as well. For instance, 968 Park Hotel in South Lake Tahoe is offering two nights for the price of one (rates from $99 to $199) for stays March 21 through June 4, booked between March 21 and April 5. And Tahoe Seasons Resort has a two-night Sweet Retreat offer that includes a suite and extras like wine and chocolates for $385 during spring.

Note: This year hasn't been great for snow so far, but snow forecasters suggest March may bring more powder, which would be perfect for spring skiing. Check current snow conditions before you book.

Related: The Most Amazing Beach in Lake Tahoe

(Photo: Prince Edward Island via Shutterstock)

Canada

The dollar buys you a lot more in Canada these days—about 13 percent more than it did in 2014; that's huge. On top of the awesome exchange rate, travelers can find low-season prices across the country during spring. Our northern neighbor is a true travel steal this year.

Train travel is an ideal way to take in the vast and gorgeous Canadian countryside. And VIA Rail Canada's train trips are almost always priced a lot lower in spring. This epic Across Canada by Train package costs $5,504 per person, based on double occupancy, for travel through May 24. From May through September, though, the cost jumps as high as $6,795 per passenger. The Canada Rockies trip, an excellent way to explore the wilds of Western Canada, starts at $1,643 per person in April, compared to as much as $6,253 per person in summer.

Related: Wonderful Things to Experience in Canada

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title Best Budget Destinations for Spring 2015.  Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

9 Free Travel Deals That Aren't Really Free

Posted March 10, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Buyer beware: Travel is almost never free. The travel world teems with offers that are simply too good to be true, from outright scams to tricky "hidden in the fine print" fees. Free cruise? Two-for-one flights? Think again. These are the nine "free" travel offers you need to watch out for.

Related: 14 Myths About Booking Cheap Flights

Free Cruises

There's no such thing as a free lunch—and there's definitely no such thing as a free cruise. Our inboxes are inundated daily with deals from cruise lines touting completely free or two-for-one cruises. These offers come from major lines and tiny ones you've never heard of before, from luxury ships to small two-night party boats.

Free cruises fall into two categories: absolute scams and the "legitimate" kind that really aren't free at all.

In the first category are scams like the dear departed Caribbean Cruise Line (not to be confused with Royal Caribbean), famous for offering completely free cruises. (We'll talk about the second category in the next slide.) In 2010, Editor Dan Askin of our sister site Cruise Critic investigated the free-cruise offer he received and found out that it was anything but. From fishy customer-service reps who don't return calls to devious company policies requiring winners to pay fees and attend long presentations, Caribbean Cruise Line was a total rip-off. (Read The Free Cruise Offer: Scam or Legit? and its update for the whole sordid story.) In the end, Caribbean Cruise Line shut its hatches after others outed its shady practices. But don't worry; it's back in business as Grand Celebration. Beware.

Related: 10 Best Luxury Cruise Ships

Two-for-One Cruises

In the second category are two-for-one cruises. We've seen every line touting buy-one-get-one prices on amazing excursions. Yes, the base fare is indeed two-for-one, and that could mean big savings. But read the fine print first: Many lines only offer the discount on certain cruises or a limited number of higher-end room categories. (I saw a recent offer that required booking an ultra-premium ocean-view suite, for instance.) Also, you'll likely still need to pay additional fees like gratuities, port charges, and so on. These two-for-one deals can save you money, but you may need to spend more to save. And they're nowhere near free. Always compare prices between the two-for-one offer and the regular fare.

Related: 9 Places That Are Surprisingly Cheap This Year

Timeshares

"Free Orlando vacation!" screams an email I got recently. "Stylish residence! Amazing amenities! Just attend an information session and your trip is free!" Ah. A timeshare.

Yes, that trip is "free," and yes, buying into a timeshare could be a great opportunity to save money in a much-frequented destination. But the risks, rules, and fine print of timeshare ownership could really cost you. First of all, timeshares require sitting through an uncomfortable, often manipulative sales pitch that promises much more than it could ever deliver. Go into the pitch with a clear head and don't make any decisions on the spot, even if the salesperson offers you "limited-time only" promotions or freebies. Second, timeshare companies often assess sneaky fees for maintenance, development, and other contingencies; these fees are almost never spelled out and could be astronomical. Be prepared for them on top of your initial investment.

If you're prepared for the above, then go ahead and take that free trip. But read Ed Perkins' Eight Timeshare Gotchas before you even consider buying in; you may be better off investing in a vacation rental instead.

Related: How to Beat Hotel Bidding Sites in 9 Steps

Vacation or Travel Clubs

Imagine a timeshare but without your own place; that's what a vacation club is. These clubs (often run by major hotel chains) require an annual membership fee. In exchange, members are entitled to the use of a hotel room, condo, or villa for a certain amount of time per year. Many programs allow you to buy into a bunch of different locations, meaning one year you could be in Orlando, the next in Aruba. Not a bad deal!

But like timeshares, vacation clubs come with a host of problems: hidden fees, lots of markup, and reselling difficulties, to name a few. To get you in the door, vacation-club promoters may offer free or discounted membership for the first year, upgrades to premium accommodations, complimentary airfare, or other inclusions that sound sweet but probably aren't worth it. So, again, do your research. Consumer Affairs maintains a list of recent rip-offs, from travel promoters scamming seniors to states outright banning vacation clubs for shady behavior.

Related: High-End Vacation Rentals: A Good Value?

Airfare Credit

To entice visitors in slow times or the off-season, resorts often hawk airfare credit if you book through their websites directly. You'll see language like "$500 Airfare Credit on Seven-Night Stays!" or "Free Airfare Voucher for Two People!" (These deals are popular with megaresorts like Sandals and Couples.)

Certainly these can be great offers that save you money, but there are some things you should know before you book. The airfare credit is only available with certain—often many—restrictions, whether it's a minimum length of stay, a required number of guests, a specific room category, or a large deposit up front. To satisfy these requirements, you may end up paying more than you wanted to originally. As always, do your research before you plunk down a credit card. Compare the deal with regular prices on the resort's website as well as through discounters and OTAs. You may find a better buy elsewhere.

Related: 10 New Routes That Will Lead to Cheap Flights

Free or Cheap Companion Fares

Editor Caroline Costello was psyched when she saw $1 companion airfare on Turkish Airlines back in January. But some deep diving into the terms and conditions revealed that those $1 fares weren't exactly $1. In the fine print, Turkish Airlines said, "Companion ticket subject to government imposed taxes/fees and airline-imposed fuel/security surcharges and fees." These fees added up to $504. A $504 ticket to Europe isn't a bad deal, of course, but it's far from a buck.

This applies to rewards cards touting inexpensive companion-fare deals as well: Delta, for instance, offers a free companion ticket with its SkyMiles Platinum card. The catch is that you still owe taxes and fees—and they could easily be hundreds of bucks. When applying for a new credit card, do your due diligence and read the offer's fine print meticulously.

Related: Worst New Airline Fees of 2015

Car-Rental Upgrade

Never get talked into an upgrade you don't need. Almost every major car-rental company offers category upgrades, some when you book and others at the desk when you pick up your car. Salespeople may persuade you to rent a more expensive vehicle without mentioning that the upgrade isn't complimentary. So ask. And if they claim it's free, ask if that "free"-ness applies to just the base price. A bigger, better car will likely come with even higher taxes and fees than a more economically priced option. Will you have to pay more in extra charges?

And if you're offered a "complimentary" Range Rover rental instead of a Camry? You're going to have to return that Range Rover with a full gas tank, so factor that into your budget (or risk kissing $100 good-bye).

Related: Third-Party Rental-Car Insurance: It Actually Works!

$9 Fare Club

This one isn't billed as totally free, but it's pretty close: Spirit's $9 Fare Club. The low-cost carrier offers a unique program in which paying members can book deeply discounted flights as well as save on bag fees. Not bad, but there are some caveats: First, to enroll in the Fare Club, you must spend $59.95 on an annual membership fee (which, it's important to note, auto-renews—for $69.95—unless you cancel). Second, you'll still owe taxes and fees on top of the low base fares—not to mention additional ancillary charges. Finally, availability for $9 Fare Club tickets is often very limited, meaning that even if you are a member, you may not be able to find the cheapest fare on your chosen flight.

Spirit hypes exclusive vacation packages and discounts to $9 Fare Club members that may sweeten the deal, but we say, be cautious with this one; join only if you fly the airline often.

Related: How to Avoid Travel-Insurance Gotchas

Wedding-Vendor Scam

File this one in the "outright swindle" category. While in the throes of wedding planning, I attended one of those wedding-and-honeymoon shows you see advertised in bridal mags. At one booth, a company called Lovely Weddingz 4 U (or something like that) was hawking a chance at a free honeymoon. All you had to do was enter your personal information. If you won, their reps would contact you with a free trip. Well, wouldn't you know it, both my friend and I won … and my other friend … and my other friend … actually, we all received a phone call confirming our amazing win. I dug into Lovely Weddingz 4 U and naturally it was a scam. In fact, the parent company had been cited for selling personal information to vendors. There was no free trip, just a whole lot of spam email and strange phone calls.

So brides- and grooms-to-be, beware: Your marital bliss can be at risk if you accept a fake honeymoon offer. Never give out your personal info without researching the vendor.

Readers, any other "free" deals or travel scams you want to call out?

Related: Travel Snags and How to Avoid Them

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title 'Free' Travel Offers That Aren't Really Free.  Follow Dara Continenza on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

(Photo: Getty Images/Bob Elsdale)

Creepiest Things You Can Do on a Plane

Posted March 6, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

There's one on every flight: that super-creepy flyer who thinks all social norms disappear once the plane reaches cruising altitude. Don't be that guy (or gal). Here's our list of the creepiest things you can do on a plane. Add your own in the comments at the end.

Hit on Someone

"Perfect," you think to yourself. "I'm seated next to a hottie in a confined space where she has no chance of escape for the next few hours. How about I make her wildly uncomfortable by hitting on her? Oh wait … let me slip off my wedding ring first. Now it's go time."

If you really think you've met the love of your life on an airplane, keep the conversation light and non-creepy. To keep your prey from feeling uncomfortable, wait until you're getting off the plane to slip him or her your contact information or propose a date.

Related: 10 Signs You're the Worst Person on Your Flight

Utilize Virgin's Seat-to-Seat Chat

Hey, remember Internet chat rooms? The cool '90s places inside your '90s desktop PC where you could strike up a conversation just by asking A/S/L? Let's bring that back to people stuck inside an airplane! We're not sure there's any possible way to use Virgin America's Seat-to-Seat Chat (a messaging system that lets passengers initiate conversations with each other) without being creepy. What do you even say? "Hey there, 16A, I've been watching you from the back of the plane for the last hour, and I wanted to say hi …"

Related: What Not to Wear in the Airport Security Line

Watch Porn

You know that your computer screen isn't only visible to you, right? We (and the people in the seats next to and behind you) are wondering why you thought this was a good time and place to view that porn you've got downloaded on your laptop. Bonus creepy points if you think you're being subtle, like this guy.

Related: America's 10 Scariest Airports

Send a Drink

It's a sleazy move when you do it in a bar, and it's even creepier when you enlist a flight attendant to send a drink to an attractive passenger. We're not going to condemn this one completely, because lots of people would be down for some free booze on a plane. But at least ask the target of your affection if he or she wants a drink, rather than randomly depositing a Bloody Mary on his or her tray.

Related: 10 Tricks for Sleeping on a Plane

Get Wasted

Speaking of in-flight drinks, getting completely inebriated is always a weird thing to do on a plane. One wrong move and you're going to wake up with a hangover and a court summons. Drunken behavior is not tolerated on airplanes, and for good reason. Charming as you think you are, your fellow passengers probably aren't enchanted by your loud slurring.

Related: Is It OK to Go Barefoot on the Plane?

Invade Personal Space

Falling asleep on your seatmate's shoulder, manspreading, pressing your arm up against the person next to you on the armrest—the list goes on. Do what we were all taught in kindergarten and keep your limbs to yourself.

Related: 6 Ways to Humiliate Yourself in Europe

(Photo: Getty Images/Peter Cade)

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title The Creepiest Things You Can Do on a Plane.  Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.


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