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Impulse travel: Fun or foolish?

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

Many years ago, when starting a vacation, a priest I knew packed his bags and papers, headed for the San Francisco Airport, went to the Pan Am counter (I told you it was a long time ago), and said to the agent, “I’d like a seat on the next flight.” The puzzled agent responded by asking, “Next flight to where?” And the priest answered, “Wherever the next flight goes.” That might be an extreme case of impulse travel, and it certainly isn’t practical now with walk-up fares as high as they are. But if you’re really loose about potential destinations, you can find some terrific deals if you’re willing to go where the airfare bargains take you.

A handful of websites, some purely informational and some selling tickets, offer posts, blogs, tweets, and email bulletins about airfare deals. I tend to follow airfarewatchdog.com, secretflying.com, and, of course, smartertravel.com, where I’m a contributor. As of the day I’m writing this, May 29, sample “deal” domestic round-trip fares include Atlanta-Sacramento and vice versa, $198 for flights on selected dates through February; Denver to Ft. Lauderdale and vice versa, $166 for August; and Newark to Phoenix, $249 for late summer and fall.

But the best deals tend to be for international flights, both regional and long-haul. Examples include Los Angeles to Bangkok, $448 for fall travel; Chicago to Mexico City, $288 for late summer, Seattle to Manila; $417 for October through February; and Chicago to Kolkata (Calcutta), $604 for October through December.

Most of the deal fares are on major airlines; sometimes just one line, sometimes several. Some of the deal fares require stops; others cover nonstops. Most deal fares are subject to seat limitations and blackout dates.

Occasionally, these and other websites will post what their operators think are “mistake” fares that an airline really didn’t intend to post. As the operators note, airlines sometimes honor mistake fares; other times they don’t. But there’s no risk in buying a mistake fare: You may not get the deal but you get your money back.

Typically the purchase windows for these special deals are pretty short, maybe even just a day or two. But the travel period is usually a month or more, and usually weeks in advance, giving you the opportunity to tailor a trip to your needs.

By far the largest numbers of deal fares — and the lowest prices — are for economy class travel. But often the most spectacular deal fares are in business class. A few days ago, for example, British Airways posted round-trip fares from the East Coast gateways to Israel at less than $2,000, which you could cut to $1,600 with an AARP discount. Last winter, I grabbed a less than $2000 round-trip business class fare from the West Coast to enjoy Christmas in Vienna. I don’t see anything that spectacular available right now, but I’ll keep looking.

Although the websites I mentioned also post business class fares, the gold standard in premium-class deals is Matthew Bennett’s First Class Flyer. Unfortunately, the annual fee of $97 to $297, depending on the level of service, puts this resource outside the reach of most vacation travelers, but the free sites do a reasonably good job. Each site presents information in its own way: Some tailor the presentation to your home airport, others give you the picture throughout the nation. Which one you use most depends on your preferences. The main minor annoyance to secretflying is that it lists every fare as “only” some figure, which seems condescending and gets old very quickly. The blog “View from the Wing”  is also good for premium deals, although it concentrates on credit-card “points” deals more than would interest the average traveler.

No matter what your interest, the secret to finding the best deals is almost always to cast a wide net. And these days, that net can come up with some terrific airfare deals with enough diversity that you can almost count on finding something you’d like.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

Tribune Content Agency — May 31, 2016

(c) 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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