Question: We have a cruise to Europe planned for October of this year. I haven't booked air travel yet because I want to get the lowest rate possible. When is the best time to do so? My wife thinks it should be as soon as possible.
--Angel Valenzuela, Anaheim
Answer: The time to buy an airfare is like the time to buy an antique, and that is usually right now (if it's what you want and the price seems reasonable) because it may not be there when you go back.
I can't tell you the number of times I've waited to see if the fare would drop, only to regret it later. Just last week a colleague and I perused fares to Munich, Germany, for her summer trip, and we found a price of $938. Twenty hours later, the fare had risen to $1,301.
There are some tips and tricks you can use, however, to give you an edge as opposed to putting you on edge.
* Go to various sites (airlines or third party) and sign up for airfare alerts that signal you when the fare drops. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, which compiles fare bargains, recently alerted us to a US Airways sale to Europe with prices in the $500 to $600 range. Should Valenzuela go for it? "No predicting airfares," Hobica said in an e-mail to me, "but I doubt they'll go down that much from the US Air[ways] prices we've posted."
* Fractionate. Don't look at this as a ticket to Rome, which can be expensive from LAX. Think of it as a ticket to someplace in Europe. "Try pricing a fare with a European connection," says Jerry Chandler, travel blogger for Cheapflights.com. "Fly nonstop LAX to London, Frankfurt, [Germany], or Paris and see what British Airways, Lufthansa or Air France is offering. Those carriers tend to cut deals to get you over to their overseas hubs and on to your final destination."
You also can end the trip there and buy a ticket on a low-cost carrier to your destination.
* Or you can forget the whole airfare chase and just go with the airline that's most comfortable for you. "You may be better off paying a bit of money," said Robert Bor, a professor of psychology at the Royal Free Hospital in London. "Sometimes it's more expensive," said Bor, who works as an aviation psychologist with British Air, "but you will get certain perks and privileges" that you won't get on a low-cost carrier. And you'll feel a greater sense of control.
To steal from William Ernest Henley, what better way to start a cruise than as the captain of your soul?
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Tips on when to buy an airplane ticket
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