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SOURCEBOOK 2007 | FINDING A SEAT

Airline travel may feel like a game, but it's one you can win

February 04, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

PLANES are more crowded than ever, which means less comfort and higher fares. Through October (the latest data available), U.S. airlines had cut the number of flights by 3.4% over the same period the year before, while the number of passengers had increased by 0.5%, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Airplanes are flying at 80% capacity, fuller than ever. With a possible wave of consolidation in the industry in 2007, things aren't looking up.

Travelers need to be savvier than ever to get a good fare and a comfortable seat. Here are some tips:

1. What's a deal?

The first task to finding a good deal on airfare is identifying what it is that constitutes a "deal." Check out websites such as Airfarewatchdog.com (www.airfarewatchdog.com), which does as its name implies: a team of experts watches over fares and when it sees a good one, it fetches and delivers it to the website. FareCompare (www.farecompare.com) does a similar thing but uses computers rather than people to find the best fares.

2. Buy now or buy later?

It's the age-old question for travelers. These days it's probably better to buy now if you see a fare that seems a fair price. To help you determine that, visit Farecast (www.farecast.com). It uses computers to analyze historical airfare data and makes a stab at predicting whether that fare is going up or down in the future.

3. Send in the deals

Many websites and airlines will send you a weekly e-mail with a list of deals. For the airlines, travel is usually required that following weekend or the weekend after it. But sites such as Sherman's Travel (www.shermanstravel.com) and Smarter Travel (www.smartertravel.com) will e-mail their weekly top deals that are not dependent on being able to fly at a moment's notice.

4. Avoid rush hour

Fly at off-peak times for better seats, less-crowded planes and better fares. If you can fly midweek, fares will be lower. If you can fly in winter or fall to Europe, for example, fares will be lower. If you can fly both midweek and off-season, real deals can be had -- and not just on airfares but hotels as well. I've been eyeing a trip to London from Los Angeles for the end of March and a nonstop ticket was recently less than $500. In July, that same ticket is priced at more than $1,100.

5. Book directly

Go to the source to book your plane ticket. If you find a good fare on American Airlines using Expedia or Travelocity or another online travel agency, go to American's website (www.aa.com) to book it. You will find the same (and possibly a better) fare there but without the extra fees that online travel agencies charge to book the ticket.

6. Use a travel search engine

Travel search websites such as Kayak (www.kayak.com) and SideStep (www.sidestep.com) scour the Web looking for good deals. While it's not one-stop shopping, it is nonetheless one stop you should make to make sure you find the best deal.

7. Look specifically for Southwest

Check out Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com). Its fares are not listed on the online travel agencies or in the travel search engines such as Kayak and SideStep. Download its "Ding" software and tell it what airports you are interested in. It will notify you automatically when a deal comes up, with a ding.

8. Finding a comfy seat

To find the most comfortable seats on a plane, check out Seat Guru (www.seatguru.com). There you will find detailed, color-coded seat maps for every type of plane an airline flies. At 6-foot-4, nothing is more important to me than legroom, so I choose an exit row whenever possible. But on a United Boeing 777, the exit row 30 in coach is right next to the lavatory. It's something I'm willing to live with, but not everybody has legs like mine. Seat Guru rates the seats in row 30 both green and yellow -- a good seat, but beware of the lavatory.

9. Fly an airline with more legroom

Some airlines simply have taken long legs into better account than others. United, for example, has an Economy Plus section in the front of its aircraft with more legroom. The seats are, alas, reserved for elite members of United's Mileage Plus Program, but you can often buy an upgrade at the self check-in kiosk or at the gate. JetBlue is also adding legroom to a section of seats on its A320 aircraft by removing a row of seats on its planes. Again, check with Seat Guru.

10. Use miles or certificates to upgrade

Once upon a time, there were all sorts of secrets savvy travelers claimed would guarantee you a free upgrade. I always took them with a grain of salt and more so these days. Planes are filled up front with the airlines' best customers -- passengers paying first-class fares and elite members of an airline's frequent flier programs. Your best chance of getting an upgrade is flying big planes in the middle of the day. Flying a jumbo jet means there will simply be more business or first-class seats available. Flying in the middle of the day means you will be competing for those seats with fewer business travelers.

Contact Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.

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