5 ways to save on summer vacation flights

PHOTO: Umbrellas and deck chairs on the beachGetty Images
Umbrellas and deck chairs on the beach

If you’ll be traveling by plane this summer, you can save some money by doing a few simple things right now.

1. Look at money-saving destinations

If you’ll vacation in the U.S., consider a tour of New England after flying into Boston, or revel in the Rockies after landing in Denver. Both have been "cheaper destination" cities for years. Lately, we’ve also seen good deals to sunny San Diego, Seattle and the always-fun New Orleans.

In Europe, deals to Iceland and Scandinavia continue, while Paris has been a bargain for some departure cities. More recently, we’ve been seeing more and more deals to Barcelona.

2. Sign up for faster security

Time is money, and if you miss a flight, the airlines will prove it to you by charging a very expensive change fee (up to $200).

Avoid running late by gliding through security checkpoints -- you can do this by joining PreCheck and using the members-only lanes. The cost is $85 for five years. International travelers pay $100 for five years for Global Entry, which includes PreCheck. Ask anyone who’s in it and they’ll say it’s worth it for the speed alone.

Join now because you have to make an appointment for an in-person interview, and while that usually takes all of five minutes, it can take a few weeks before membership is officially approved and that all-important Known Traveler Number reaches you.

3. Your precise vacation days matter

If flying domestically, you can often find much better deals by flying Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. If you can’t build your vacation around those days, try flying one of them, maybe Saturday to the following Sunday -- at least you’ll save something.

Next, take a look at No. 4 before turning in your days-off request.

4. Check fares now

This will give you a good idea about the cheaper times to fly. It’s also a good time to sign up for airfare alerts. In both cases, if you see a fare you like, book it; cheap seats don’t last.

Example: In early March, I received a question from a man in the Midwest who wanted to know if he should purchase $690 round-trip tickets to Ireland for late August or wait. Normally, one should wait to buy Europe fares five months to two or three months from departure but that was a great price, and I said buy.

Tip: Late last week, I saw summer tickets for Los Angeles to Dublin in mid-August for $500 round-trip, and Boston to New Orleans for a mere $80 each way. Get going!

5. Know your airline, avoid painful fees

Plan your bags in advance and you won’t over pack and you won’t pay fees (or pay too much). Here’s a quick tip sheet:

- Free carry-on bags: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United (unless you buy basic economy tickets on American and United; then you’ll be charged a fee and the carry-on must be checked)
- Free checked bags: Southwest allows passengers two checked-bags for free
- No free bags: Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit charge for all bags. Be sure to look at the fees carefully; these discounters often charge more for carry-ons than checked-bags

Last-minute travelers: The biggest money-saving tip for summer (or anytime) is, before booking airline tickets, always compare airfares. No single carrier always has the best deal on every route.

Rick Seaney is the CEO of FareCompare, a website that curates the best deals on flights from around the world. Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.