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15 ways to reduce airfare costs

With a little careful planning, you can save

With a little careful planning, you can save money on your next trip. (May 3, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

About a month ago, after returning from vacation, I wrote about how pesky airline fees and extra charges added to the cost of my "free" mileage tickets. In good conscience, I can't just leave it at that without offering up some ways to save money when flying. Here are 15 tips:

1. Use discounted secondhand gift cards
Say I get a $500 gift card to Qantas airlines for my birthday. OK, so no one I know is going to give me a $500 gift, but play along. While I'd love to visit my cousins in Australia, I'm chained to my desk here at Newsday so I can keep scouring for deals and travel advisories for you. So do I stash the gift card in my drawer and forget about it? No! I take a bit of a hit and sell it online, and spent my $400 or $450 proceeds on some plants and gardening supplies. You buy it for less than face value and save money on your next flight. Win-win.

I just found a $100 American Airlines gift card up for auction on eBay with a starting bid of $79, no bidders yet, and 2 days left to go. If you snagged it at that price, you'd be saving 20 percent off the face value. Typically, though, the selling price is closer to a 6 percent savings. GiftCardGranny, which consolidates sales from other sites, allows you to sign up for email alerts that send when a gift card to your specified airline becomes available.

2. Pass on in-flight meals, plus my water bottle trick
It sounds like a no-brainer, but bears mentioning: Plan to eat before you head to the airport and pack snacks to munch on midair or in case your flight gets delayed. Airport food is nearly as expensive as in-flight meals and you can save some cash by simply bringing your own. And since water bottles aren't allowed through security, bring an empty bottle and fill it at a water fountain after you've passed the checkpoint. You might think buying a water bottle isn't a big deal, but when traveling as a family of 4, the cost really adds up.

3. Don't pa y for in-flight perks
Before you fly, download a movie from Netflix and bring your laptop plus headphones to avoid in-flight entertainment costs. An inflatable pillow and a wafer-thin blanket will help you sleep on long flights and can be stashed in your carry-on to avoid the added expense of renting a much-drooled on version from the flight attendant (You don't think they wash them, do you?) or shelling out $7 on JetBlue to buy your own.

4. Bundle up
Package deals often bundle airfare, accommodations and vehicle rentals at a serious savings. But some aren't all they're cracked up to be, so be sure to compare the package price to what you'd pay if purchasing each service individually. And take into account the type of accommodations and hotel class in the package when comparing.

5. Shop consolidators
OneTravel.com and Hotwire.com are just two websites that consolidate the lowest fares available. Be sure to check terms carefully as there might be some semihidden restrictions.

6. Book midweek
Airfare prices are at their lowest in the middle of the week, according to FareCompare.com who claims Tuesday afternoon offers the best value and selection of low cost flights.

7. Weekend layovers
You can actually save money by staying longer. Extend your trip over a weekend, and chances are your return flight will be cheaper. Often the savings will more than cover the extra night's hotel charge. Business travelers do this all the time.

8. Compare baggage fees
Don't forget to account for checked bag fees when comparing flight prices among different carriers, especially if you are planning to check several bags. Southwest allows 2 free checked bags per customer; JetBlue allows one.

Most other airlines charge $15 to $30 for the first checked bag and an incremental increase for each additional. Some airlines offer a discount if you pay for your checked bags online in advance. Find out what your airline charges before you book and take the additional cost into consideration when pricing out the best offer.

9. Travel light
It'll cost you big (up to $175 for some airlines) to check bags heavier than 50 pounds -- even if you're just one pound over. If you think you're near the limit, weigh your bags at home before you leave. Or avoid baggage fees altogether by packing light and carrying it all onboard.

10. Switch airports
Compare fares for flying out of LaGuardia Airport  to Kennedy, or consider switching from Kennedy  to Newark Airport. You'll need to factor in the cost of parking, a car rental or other mode of transportation to reach the airport, but might be surprised at the total difference in price. Plus, the crowds will be lighter and parking easier.

11. Avoid change fees
Booking through a third party site can cost you double the change fees should you need to alter your flight plans. Airlines typically charge $75 to $150 to change a domestic reservation, and third-party sites tack their own fee on top of that, adding roughly $50 to $100 to make the change. Southwest is the only airline that doesn't charge domestic ticket holders for changing an itinerary. Paying more for a flight sometimes gives you the option to change flight dates, but it's best to solidify your plans before booking to avoid change fees altogether.

12. Get airline credit
Some airlines will issue credit if the fare for your flight drops after you purchase it but before you take off. I take advantage of this all the time, booking way in advance and checking periodically to see whether the fare price has dropped. When it does, I call the airline and get a credit. It's not cash money, but it's applied to my next purchase. Last time, I registered my flight with Yapta, which tracked the flight for me so I didn't have to keep checking the airline site for a price drop. MasterCard also has a PriceAssure program to help cardholders track flights and net airline credits.

13. Skip the extra legroom
Disclaimer: I have a bum leg so it's important I always get an aisle seat on the right side of the plane. If I can pay extra for more legroom, I'm always happy to do so. But for you, this likely isn't a necessity. Many airlines now charge for seats that offer more legroom. Dare to stretch out and, for some airlines, you're looking at an additional fee of up to $30 for each leg of your trip.

14. Know your award travel requirements
Some airlines charge if frequent fliers try to book award travel within 21 days of flight (considered a "rush" booking). Still others charge to renew expired mileage points. Examine the small print before you begin the process. SmarterTravel.com has a handy guide to frequent-flier fees so you can compare programs in one place.

15. Book online
Some airlines now actually charge a fee for booking in person or by phone, somewhat like banks now charge you for the privilege of talking to a teller. You could even get charged extra for paper tickets. Make sure you read the fine print and stick to the Internet when finalizing flight plans.

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