With a busy travel season expected this summer, it may be difficult to find a last-minute deal.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, fares on domestic flights averaged $380 in the 2006 fourth quarter, up more than 3 percent from $367 the previous year. And with airlines filling nearly 80 percent of seats, the high prices are likely to persist.
"As far as airfares, you see fewer and fewer deals because airlines have reduced capacity," said Michael Stitt, executive producer at Travelzoo Inc., which tracks and publishes travel deals. "So the airlines have the ability to increase prices."
At the same time, 69 percent of U.S. adults said they plan to fly as much as or more this summer than they did last summer, up from 57 percent in 2006, according to Expedia.com, a travel search engine.
Still, though you may have trouble finding bargain-basement prices, travel professionals say it is possible to pare costs. You just need to think strategically.
Shop in midweek.
Many myths exist about which day of the week airlines typically cut fares. But when it comes to last-minute weekend getaways, Stitt said, most airlines post specials, or e-fares, on Tuesdays.
"Sometimes [deals] are great, sometimes they're good, and sometimes they're just OK," Stitt said. Regardless, be prepared to travel in the morning: Most fares require that you fly Saturday and return early the next week.
Flights that depart on a Tuesday or Wednesday also can help you snag a fare as much as 40 percent lower than leaving on a Friday.
If you can stay as loose about your destination as you are about the days you travel, you will have an even better chance of saving money.
Travelzoo, for example, releases the 20 best travel deals of the week every Wednesday at 9 a.m. Among bargains recently listed: A seven-week Alaskan cruise going for $849, which normally costs $1,200 to $1,500, and 50 percent off rooms at a new Scottsdale, Ariz., resort.
Also, consider heading to areas where summer is the off-season for travel. A recent search for flights from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Phoenix (the closest airport to the Scottsdale resort, incidentally) turned up round-trip fares starting at $176. Several flights to Mexico could be had for less than $400 round trip, including taxes and fees (all prices are based on travel from June 12 to June 19).
Don't assume you are too late to save a few dollars on trips to more popular summer destinations, such as Europe. While you won't find the low fares typical of early spring and fall, the Continent's off-season, airlines may run periodic sales to help fill any empty seats.
Airlines sometimes release additional discounted student airfares starting in mid-May, said Kristen Celko, vice president of marketing and e-commerce for STA Travel North America, a student travel organization. On average, student fares are 10 percent to 20 percent cheaper. "Procrastination may pay off," Celko said.
Even if it is expensive to cross the pond, you may be able to find deals on the Continent. The weak dollar is leading many U.S. travelers to avoid Europe this summer. As a result, European hotels are starting to cut rates.
For example, the Leonard hotel in London is offering rooms for about $158 per night if you book by May 30, about 55 percent off what the hotel normally charges.
When you do spot a deal, don't delay. With capacity tight, any specials that do surface probably will be for a limited number of seats or hotel rooms.
"Be ready to book fast," said Stitt, of Travelzoo, "because the best deals go fast in the summer."