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Do's and Don'ts of Cheap Flying

Coupons, regional airlines, and "split fares" can save you money

As the editor and publisher of Best Fares magazine, Tom Parsons has been studying the ins and outs of airline pricing and helping travelers fly cheaply since 1983. Here Parsons gives some money-saving tips.

DO: Search for and use discount coupons. Parsons says that airlines offer 350 to 400 unadvertised and unpublished travel deals every year. Most can be had by redeeming discount coupons that are distributed by retail outlets and with specific products. An example: people who bought three rolls of Kodak film at a Walgreens Drugstore recently could request a mail-in certificate redeemable for four $60-off coupons on American Airlines. This sort of coupon can usually be used during fare wars to further reduce already low prices.

DO: Look into niche and regional airlines. Several small upstart airlines like Tower, ValuJet, and Kiwi now offer services between select areas at very low prices. They concentrate on specific pockets, usually only a handful of cities, and discount prices to to make up for their lack of name recognition and to encourage passengers to fly the short haul rather than drive.

DO: Take advantage of "split fares." Surprisingly, splitting fares may enable a traveler to combine two cheap tickets for much less than the cost of the original single ticket, especially with the aforementioned rise of niche markets. Rather than buying a single ticket from Dallas to Kansas City, for example, Parsons suggests that a consumer look into flying from Dallas to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then from Tulsa to Kansas City.

DO: Consider flying to and from alternative cities. Some air routes are significantly cheaper than others. If you are willing to make the journey to and from an out-of-the-way airport before and after a long trip, you may be able to save big. A one- or two-hour drive, according to Parsons, can take as much as 70 percent off of a single ticket price. Washington, D.C. flyers should consider making the trek to nearby Baltimore, and Chicago flyers should look into flying by way of Milwaukee.

DON'T: Buy tickets immediately. Most discount fares need only be purchased 14 days in advance. Buying sooner may simply mean a loss of future savings. People who buy early can't get any money back when prices drop. Buy tickets immediately only if you wish to travel during busy holidays like Christmas or New Year's Day.

DON'T: Always pick a flight time. Tell travel and reservation agents that cheap is more important than, say, arriving at nine in the morning. The relationship between time and cost is not always obvious, so you should inquire about the least expensive times to fly a chosen route--some times cost more than others, and some special fares only apply at specific times.

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Updated on October 8, 1995