Shopping for cheap airfares can be a frustrating process. Airfares rise and fall much like stock prices. Knowing the going rate for a ticket to a specific destination is nearly impossible to judge. This week's lowest fare could be overpriced next week.
Many budget travelers prefer fare trackers that lock in a certain price, and then trigger notifications when the price changes. Is a price on the way up? It might be time to buy before the cost climbs out of reach. Is the price falling? If it's now at an affordable rate, it might be time to buy.
Finding a favorite fare tracker is a matter of personal preference. Let's take a look at how to use a fare tracker, how to process the provided information, and why some fare tracking efforts need not include a destination.
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How to Use a Fare Tracker
In most cases, you'll need to be far enough along in your search for cheap airfares that a date and route have emerged. There are fare trackers that will cover various airports and routes, but you want a tight focus on what the market is doing.
Some fare trackers will ask if you are flexible with dates and airports, and it pays to at least listen to all the options. But it's easy to get lost in all sorts of possibilities when in fact you really should be narrowing options and closing in on a good deal.
You're apt to find flights that vary greatly in the departure times and duration. One might include a plane change and lengthy layover you'd rather avoid.
So go ahead and choose a specific airline and flight number. The better fare trackers will allow you to set an alert on a specific flight. Find one that works well for you and make it (for the moment) your choice.
Google Flights, for example, allows such an alert by clicking "track price" after choosing a specific flight. It then allows you to send the itinerary to yourself in an email.
Now that your alert is set, what is the best strategy for judging the results it brings to your attention?
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How Should a Budget Traveler Process Fare Alerts?
There are two schools of thought. One asks if the higher price today is still a reasonable cost you're willing to pay. If so, perhaps it's time to book the fare before it rises even higher.
Another school of thought risks rising prices in search of a deal. This works best when you're still weeks or months away from departure.
Remember: these prices rise and fall based on a complex algorithm that baffles both casual observer and expert analyst. Forecasting attempts are made frequently, but it's not an easy process. A rising price today doesn't mean much with respect to the cost tomorrow or next week.
The golden rule of airfare deals is to book the best ones quickly and to lock in a price that's decent almost as quickly. Don't hold out for a rock-bottom price that never comes.
What if the fare drops dramatically after you buy?
There's a fare tracker for that circumstance called Yapta, which follows fares from the moment you pay for the tickets until the day of departure. If the fare drops, Yapta advises you to ask the airline for a voucher or refund equal to the difference.
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Fare Alerts with No Destination in Mind
Some budget travelers with flexible schedules and open minds don't choose destinations. Instead, they let low airfares direct the itineraries.
I did this one year when fares to Panama were at bargain levels. I didn't start out planning to go to Panama, but I was open to the possibility. It proved to be an extremely rewarding trip.
You can do the same with a fare tracker called Whiskr.net. The introduction claims to have a bot that searches "400,000 flights a day for flights that are cheaper than they should be. We identify the most amazing fares to add to Whiskr."
Using this big data approach, Whiskr claims to include real-time deal availability directly from the airlines. You set your preferences and receive email notifications when an unusual fare pops up.
Keep in mind that this type of service works best when you're searching busy routes and major air hubs. It won't turn up much in the way of bargains if your primary airport is small, because those prices tend to be steady and rather high.
Whiskr offers some introductory free trials, but a subscription will cost $8/month.
Why pay to subscribe to such a service when sites such as Skyscanner will issue alerts to your inbox for free? Airlines will send you their last-minute bargains every week, too.
Flightfishing and similar services allow careful tailoring of the right offers to your home airport and the date(s) you'd like to travel. They make the promise not to bombard your inbox with mediocre offers. In times when low fares are scarce, don't expect to hear from them at all.
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Find a Favorite and Stick with It
Fare trackers come and go, and in some cases budget travelers develop loyalties to a specific service. A few of the established fare trackers have developed solid followings.
It's difficult to rank them or suggest one is better than another without knowing the specifics of a search.
But no fare tracker is effective with an indecisive consumer. Don't sign up for alerts until you're in a position to book the flight.