Navigating the Ups and Downs of Air Travel

With the industry in flux, here are five ways to get to your destination for less.

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The airline industry has seen a lot of turbulence lately, from the Continental-United merger to consumer outrage over baggage fees to volcanic ash-related cancellations. But as long as you plan ahead, you don’t need to pay top dollar this summer. Follow these five suggestions to get to your destination for less:

Choose cheaper routes. Because of the merger as well as general cutbacks by the airline industry, prices are going up. According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, airfares have risen 9 percent over last year on average, but deals can be found among certain routes. Roundtrip tickets from Dallas to New York are down 28 percent to an average of $195, while New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico is down 18 percent to an average of $162. Denver to Boston is down 19 percent, averaging $199.

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Chris McGinnis, an editor on Best Western's youmustbetrippin.com blog, says that in general, fares will be lower on routes between large cities, which see a lot of low-fare competition. That means travelers from small towns could save money by driving to the closest big city before jumping on a plane to their final destination. (He adds, though, that this trend is slowly reversing as low-fare carriers add flights to smaller cities.)

Wherever you’re flying from, be sure to shop around on comparison websites such as orbitz.com or Travelocity to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

Eliminate baggage fees. They’re the bane of the modern traveler’s existence: Paying for every bag that’s checked into the cargo hold of the plane. But it doesn’t have to be that way, at least for consumers who hold a Delta SkyMiles card. The card issuer recently announced that cardholders can check their first bag for free. With the standard baggage charge now around $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second, those savings can add up for frequent flyers.

Another option? Fly Southwest, one of the few remaining airlines to not charge for your first piece of checked baggage. (Once you reach three pieces, though, Southwest adds a $50 charge per piece.)

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Be a smart shopper. Use deal-oriented sites, such as www.travelzoo.com, www.vacationstogo.com, and www.smartertravel.com, before booking trips. It’s often cheaper to purchase packages, such as car rentals plus airfare, or airfare plus hotel rooms, compared to buying each item separately, as long as you don’t mind committing to certain providers in advance. Car rental rates at destination cities are usually pretty competitive, with prices down an average of four percent this year, according to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index. Rental rates in San Francisco dropped 42 percent to an average of $39 a day for an intermediate size car; the rate in Los Angeles dropped 58 percent to $25 a day.

Use your social networks. Airlines are increasingly using Twitter and other social networking sites to get the word out about cheap deals and temporary discounts. Sign up to follow your favorite carrier’s tweets and you might get first crack at a deal. United Airlines, for example, recently tweeted its sale on Alaska flights on the last day it was available.

Know your refund rights. Most airlines give refunds to customers who have already purchased tickets when the price drops, but only if they purchased the ticket directly from the airline itself. That means you should be careful when buying from price comparison sites. Check up on what kind of refunds they offer in case of a price drop.