How To Book Cheap Flights

Booking plane tickets doesn’t have to be as daunting of a task as it may seem. So now, how do you get plane tickets off the Internet? And is it really safe?

If you pay attention to a few details, booking a flight on the Internet is safe, at least in my experience. In my four years of college, my parents and I booked over a dozen flights from Oregon to Minnesota (a horrendously overpriced stretch). Many of them were Internet flights, and none of them ever failed me.

[THE SITES]

A number of different kinds of sites are out there for searching and booking flights; each is useful for a different kind of booking. The mother of all online flight-sites is Priceline.com, the one with the infamous William Shatner commercials. You submit how much you’re willing to pay, where you’re going from and to and what general times you’re up for (daytime, red-eye, anything), and then the site tries to find you a ticket, which you are locked in to taking if they find one.

Another site along those same lines is Hotwire.com Here, you put in your information, and they find you a price. You accept or reject, give the times you’re willing to fly (the options are in fairly large blocks), and then commit to taking the ticket. After this, they pick the time.

The snag with both is the uncertainty: You commit before knowing the time of day for sure, and with Priceline, even the exact airline. However, they’ve stepped up their search speeds: Priceline now gives you an answer in 15 minutes flat. Just make sure you’re really willing to pay any price (and fly any time) you put in.

Other sites let you plug in your dates, times, destination, etc., and then find you a number of flights, ranging from exorbitantly expensive to (if you’re lucky) dirt-cheap. These are my favorite. New ones are popping up left and right, and on any given day, one might find you a better ticket than the other. Sites I’ve had experience with are Qixo.com, Travelocity.com and Cheaptickets.com.

Qixo is usually most comprehensive and has a user-friendly layout, Cheaptickets often comes up with the lowest fare, and Travelocity is usually more expensive but occasionally pulls up real bargains. Other sites with the same idea are Bargaintravel.com, Airgorilla.com and Orbitz. If you have time, search them all; you never know what you’ll find. Also, most sites are now offering hotels and car rentals in conjunction with flights.

[VACATION]

Internet booking gets to be the most fun of all if you have some time before you have to fly and flexibility in when exactly you go. Or even flexibility in where you go. For regular flights, most sites (like most airlines) require you to book at least one or two weeks ahead. However, many sites have last-minute sections, or special flights advertised at great prices to vacation spots (for example, while doing research for this article, I saw a flight to London for $298). A “notification” or “flight-watch” feature is also common: You put in a destination you’ve always wanted to visit (say, Peru) and the site sends you an email when prices to your chosen spot dip below average.

[GENERAL FLY-SMART TIPS]

Airport codes. To book online, you will need to know the official code for both departing and destination airports. For example, Portland, Ore., is PDX, and Minneapolis-St. Paul is MSP. Many sites have little pop-up searches. If you fly a stretch with any frequency at all, you’ll do well to memorize the code; it saves time looking for it. In any case, make absolutely sure you have the right code—you don’t want to think you’re flying from Portland, Maine, and find out you booked a ticket from Oregon.

E-tickets. With these tickets, you’re given a confirmation code, like X4LI0Z2, and that’s all you need. They can be very handy as long as you keep track of the code (make sure to distinguish between zero and the letter ‘O’). WARNING: don’t assume you have an electronic ticket just because you bought it online. I once forgot my printed ticket at home, realized it halfway to the airport but mistakenly assumed it was no big deal because I had my code, and it was electronic. It wasn’t, and they wouldn’t let me on the plane.

Luggage. Make sure you know your airline’s size, weight and number requirements for carry-on and checked luggage. Each one has slightly different rules, and it’s rather unpleasant to have to re-pack or consolidate your suitcases in front of the airline worker. Sneaky tip: If you fear your suitcases may be to heavy and can’t leave any of it behind, go to a male bag checker if possible. The guys aren’t as picky, but if the girls can’t lift it, they’ll have it weighed.

X-Ray. If you have to fly with photo film, well, good luck. European X-rays use to be much stronger than here, so damage is more likely, but since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. ray strength has been stepped up, too. Exposed film is more vulnerable than blank film. If you can, convince them not to put it through—but that’s a long shot. If possible, develop pictures before you get on the plane.

See Also

Sharp metal. If you haven’t been flying recently, be warned: Don’t have anything metal and sharp in any of your carryons. This includes any scissors, knives, razors, X-acto knives, fingernail files, toenail clippers with file attachments, sharp tweezers, etc. The X-ray will find them, and they’ll be taken and dropped in the amnesty box, which means you’ll never see them again. If you’re unlucky, you could even be searched and delayed if found with such items.

Frontier. Unsolicited plug: Frontier is my favorite airline. I’ve only flown with it twice, but both times the service was great for a small airline (i.e., hot face cloths and toasted, still-warm bagels or soft pretzels). They don’t go everywhere, though, and the planes are fairly small. But they’re usually well priced. And their planes have little baby animals painted on the tail wing …

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