Getting the best airline deals is an important way to save your company money. But the Internet is a crowded and complex place. If you're hoping to find one website where all of the lowest prices live, forget it.
Finding the lowest airline prices takes legwork.
Finding the best airline deals takes even more legwork. But first you've got to define what "best" means to you.
Here is my advice for getting the best airline deals:
* Don't try to be an all-knowing travel expert. Be honest with yourself. Recognize which simple bookings you can do yourself and which complicated ones are best handled with the assistance of a travel professional.
* Doing Internet research is a double-edged sword. The more you surf for savings, the more of your own time you're investing. There will come a point when you'll ask yourself, "What price do I assign to my time?"
* So, if it seems like your online research is going to consume too much time, consider enlisting a travel agent. Most have access to powerful reservations databases called global distribution systems (GDSs) that link travel suppliers and travel buyers around the world. Savvy agents can save you time and money by accessing GDSs and other resources, such as airline consolidators, that you weren't even aware existed.
* When you find a good travel agent or agency, cherish them. Send them flowers. That's because when you have a dedicated agent working for you, you're leveraging a magnitude of experience and access to information that only travel professionals possess.
* Having dispensed with my Caveat emptor! prologue, my first actual tip for getting a great airline deal is the one most frequently ignored: Book early. The days of last-minute airfare deals are all but over. Booking early is easily the most important thing you can do to save dollars on virtually anything anywhere related to travel.
* Know which air carriers serve not only your cities of arrival and departure, but your stopovers as well. Yes, you can visit your favorite airline's website and check pricing -- but what you will be missing is learning which other carriers fly to those connecting cities.
* So by all means visit the big travel agency sites online, where you'll learn which carriers fly to which connecting cities. But remember, those big websites may not include regional or low-fare carriers and airline-specific Web fares. The only surefire way to discover that information is to click over to those carriers' individual websites as well.
* Also remember when you're scrolling down the pages of the online travel sites, the impression that you're getting all of the pricing information that exists may not be an accurate one. Many of the airfares are there, but a fair share may not be.
* What you may not realize is that a seemingly low airfare found on a travel website may many times be even lower on the airline's own website. That's because today many of airlines maintain their lowest fares on their own websites.
* Another overlooked fact about airfares is that often your ticket's cost comes down to how much competition there is on your particular route. The more competition, the more competitive the pricing will be.
* Some experts say that websites that employ so-called "predictive modeling" (FareCast.com is one example) can not only track the up and down patterns of certain airfares, but can predict when particular airfare deals will emerge.
* To me, the "best" airline deal is the one that gets me on an uncrowded plane. Business travelers usually don't have much choice about when they travel. But if you ever do get the gift of that sort of flexibility, use it wisely. Consider where you are flying -- and when! Try to avoid the high seasons for vacations. Think about leisure travelers' favorite travel dates and how they'll compete with your own travel schedule.
* "Bots" or Web agents that surf websites to reap data can save you the trouble of searching each site one by one. These sites compile schedules and fares from a variety of airlines, from full service to low cost carriers, to provide you with a side-by-side comparison of your air travel options. But be aware that some low-cost carriers have turned off the bots, as have some travel websites.
* Airline websites have also gotten a lot more user-friendly. For example, Lufthansa and Air Canada have popular consumer websites that offer one-way combinable fares and "family fare" features. Their sites' online calendars even enable you to perform low-fare searches within a given date range, which is a boon to any business traveler who values that sort of booking flexibility.
* Decide what "best" really means to you and your company. Does it mean booking a trip where you get the lowest cost but arrive at your destination late or haggard or missing your luggage? Or does it mean booking a trip where you arrive on time and fresh and ready to conduct business?
* There are many considerations that trump low cost, including comfort, convenience, and choice. For many business travelers, options like flexible ticket changes, seat upgrades, and bonus loyalty miles are worth paying more. So weigh your choices before clicking "Buy."
Here's a short of the most important how-to points:
* Recognize when your itinerary is too complex for you to book yourself.
* Value a good travel agent.
* Remember that your time has value, too.
* Travel agents can call upon resources you can't hope to match.
* Book early.
* Know the cities along your flight route.
* Online travel agencies are great, but not 100% comprehensive.
* Don't forget to check out the airlines' own websites.
* Your ticket's cost is a function of competition.
* Check out a "predictive modeling" websites.
* Factor in the impact of leisure travelers' high seasons.
* 'Bots can save time.
* Airline websites are getting easier to use.
* Figure out what "best" means to you.
* Low cost is far from the only measure of a best airline deal.
Remember, figuring out how to get the best airline deals is not as easy as it looks, nor do the lowest prices always deliver the best value.
Airline Futurist • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com