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Taking the Kids

Time to Play the Low-Fare Game

April 19, 1998|EILEEN OGINTZ

Psst. Looking for an air fare deal? Who isn't? Some people turn the hunt into a game, bragging about the cheap tickets they've snagged to fly coast-to-coast or to Paris.

Travel guru Tom Parsons has turned the hunt into a career with Best Fares magazine and the ever-growing Web site (http://bestfares.com) devoted to showing all of us how to play the game and win.

But any parent knows that when you're talking plane tickets for a family, it's no fun game. High fares might mean you don't go, or you're forced to drive 10 hours with squabbling kids in the back of the van.

Don't get out the road maps just yet.

The good news is that there are air deals out there for families.

The bad news is that it's going to take creativity to find them and as much flexibility as you can muster to use them this summer. That's because so many people are traveling--37 million more than last spring, according to a Travel Industry of America survey--that airlines don't have to offer so many deeply discounted seats to fill their planes.

"I wouldn't hold out much hope for kids-fly-free deals," said Steve Loucks of the American Society of Travel Agents. "I also wouldn't wait, thinking a better deal is going to come along."

That means as soon as they're announced, you should jump on sale fares to Orlando or Las Vegas, which, along with Los Angeles, are among the hottest domestic destinations, ASTA travel agents report. You should act just as quickly if you want to visit Chicago, Paris or Yellowstone National Park.

"I have a lot of luck the old fashioned way--in the newspaper," said Kyle McCarthy, publisher of the Family Travel Forum newsletter, who scours the travel section for bargain-fare ads.

If the lowest-priced tickets are gone when you try to book them, immediately try the competing airlines, suggested Ed Perkins from Consumer Reports Travel Letter. Better yet, ask your travel agent to do the work for you. He or she's on top of the constantly changing fares.

"I wouldn't plan a family trip without one," Felicity Long says of travel agents--high praise from a reporter who monitors industry goings-on for Travel Weekly.

A new area on the ASTA Web site allows you to shop for an agent who can get you the best deal: At http://astanet.com, enter what you're looking for and then choose among the agents who answer your query.

Just make sure your travel agent knows how to play the game.

Rule No. 1: Look toward airports that you ordinarily wouldn't consider, if they're within two hours of your destination. Fly into Fort Lauderdale rather than Miami, or Providence, R.I., rather than Boston. "The drive won't look so bad when you've got an extra $1,000 in your pocket to spend on the trip," Parsons said.

Travel midweek or on Saturdays for more savings. Night flights often are cheaper too. Remember that when you're buying four (in my case, five) tickets, even a small per-ticket savings can turn into a significant amount.

Rule No. 2: Weigh carefully how much convenience counts in the let's-find-a-deal equation. If you're traveling with a baby and a toddler, for example, I guarantee it won't be worth changing planes in order to save $75. If you're sending kids solo to visit their dad or grandma, you'll want to send them the most direct route possible. (Children under 8 aren't permitted to fly solo on connecting flights.)

Rule No. 3: Surf the Net regularly, especially if you care more about getting away than where you go. Usually announced on Wednesdays at airline Web sites, these deals are good for travel the coming weekend. Recently, I saw coast-to-coast round-trip tickets for under $200 and Chicago-Orlando for $81 each way. Many airlines will e-mail you the latest deals. As in shopping at an outlet store, you just have to take what's available.

Rule No. 4: When planning an overseas trip, book as early as you can for the steepest discounts and consider flying to a closer gateway such as London and then connecting, Parsons suggested. British Midland's Discover Europe Airpass, for example, enables travelers to London to fly on to major European cities for little more than $100 (less for children). Call British Midland at (800) 788-0555.

Ask about packages. British Airways, for example, was offering Los Angeles-to-London air-hotel packages last week for some summer dates starting at $919 for adults and $529 for kids under 12. (British Airways' toll-free telephone number is (800) 247-9297; Internet http://www.british-airways.com.

Consider booking with a consolidator who has bought a block of seats. Try World Travel Network at (800) 40-WORLD or Cheap Tickets at (800) 377-1000.

Rule No. 5: Shop smaller carriers, such as Southwest, Vanguard, Tower or Kiwi Air. They often have more lower-priced seats and last-minute deals. The average one-way ticket on Southwest, for example, was just $72 last year. (Southwest: (800) 435-9792; Internet http://www.southwest.com).

Ready, set, play the game!

*

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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