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Tips for Traveling on the Cheap

Sometimes I get the feeling that there's a whole group of people out there who believe in a mythical amendment to our Constitution — one that guarantees us the "Right to Cheap Airline Tickets."

But anyone who's actually bought airline tickets in the past six months knows this in not an "inalienable right." The No. 1 reason: the exploding cost of fuel. The airlines are doing something about this. They are reducing seats and raising their prices. Steadily.

We consumers have two choices: complain — which is what folks did last year — or adapt. I think the answer is "intelligent adapting"; you accomplish this by making smarter airfare purchasing decisions.

It's important to remember that an airline is in business to sell you a seat on a flight for as much money as possible. Airlines can and do change hundreds of thousands of airfare prices every day and at different times of the day. They study your buying behavior and use this knowledge to charge you more.

With all this in mind, you're ready to start shopping — that's shopping, not buying — do some research and some comparisons first. Here are some handy tips to get you started:

Be Flexible. Be willing to travel outside the typical weekend-to-weekend "box." Fly less-popular times of the day (6 a.m., noon, and late evening). Switch from your home airport, if you can get a better deal at a neighboring airport — even if it means driving an hour or two.

Don't Procrastinate. Airlines manage the cheapest seats in a four-month window before departure; any earlier, and you will be charged a mid-tier price. Waiting until the last minute used to mean you could find some great deals, but not anymore. Today, planes are packed, so airlines have no incentive to lure last-minute shoppers.

Fly on the Cheapest Days. Wednesdays are usually the least-expensive days of the week to fly. The next best days are Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Fly Hub Cities (Usually). If you are in a small-ish city, it may pay to drive to the nearest big airport. Look for an "option" button that allows you to compare prices with "nearby airports."

Don't Sit on the Sidelines. When you see a good deal, be prepared to pull the trigger. Airlines are reducing capacity and planes are filling up faster than ever; know what a good price is. Check the price history of your route, and buy quickly when you see a good deal.

Learn When to Buy Tickets to Europe. International travel has well-defined "seasons" that determine price points. If you know when these seasons begin and end, you can save hundreds of dollars by flying one day (say, at the end of a cheap season), as opposed to the person who travels the next day (at the start of a new, more-expensive season). European "Open Skies" launched on March 30, with numerous sales. Look for similar buzz-generating sales at any time new airlines or routes are introduced.

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Rick Seaney