I've written a blog post about this previously but there are some new considerations and some new websites that make it worth updating. This advice is oriented towards the person who is considering or has booked a specific adventure vacation and therefore is locked into specific dates - perhaps you have a day or two of flexibility but you're not in the position of being able to go anywhere or anytime.
There are three issues to consider: 1) when should you book your airline ticket; 2) should you use a travel agent; and 3) if you book your own tickets, what sites are most useful? I'll look at the first 2 questions in this post and consider the third one in a second.
When should you book your airline tickets?
In the original blog post, I suggested you start looking not earlier than 4 months and not later than 3 weeks. Those are still not bad guidelines, but it's not that simple. Airlines have gotten very sophisticated at projecting demand and basing their pricing on that - the cost of your ticket has virtually nothing to do with how many miles you're flying. If you are going to a popular destination at a popular time of year (e.g. the Caribbean in February, Florida during Spring Break, Europe in July, or home for the holidays), you might start looking 6 to 8 months in advance and you should definitely book early while there are still lots of seats. As planes fill, prices will go up. That is particularly true if you are flying from a small airport, on a route with limited competition, and/or to a place of high demand for your particular departure city. For example, if you live in Michigan and want to go to Florida this March, hopefully you already have your tickets booked. If instead you're going to Minneapolis, you can probably wait a few more weeks.
Of course if seats don't get sold the prices may go down (one website reported that on average, the lowest price was 3 weeks before the departure day); but you take the risk that seats will be sold out and/or prices will go up. You also have to factor in your time and anxiety level. If you think you found a good price, just book it and don't look again. If you don't find a good price, then set up a fare alert. Maybe the price will never come down but at least you will have had time to adjust to the fact that you are going to pay more than you hoped.
Warning: if you haven't flown recently, be prepared for sticker shock. Prices have gone up significantly on many flights in the last couple of years. With continuing consolidation of airlines, this is not likely to improve soon.
Should you use a travel agent?
Travel agents charge a fee (the one we work with charges $35 for domestic tickets and $45 for international flights) and may or may not be able to find a flight that is cheaper than you can find on your own. But in addition to saving you time and relieving you of the paralysis that sometimes descends from looking at too many booking sites, a huge advantage is that you have someone to help you when your flight is delayed or cancelled. Rather than trying to get through to your airlines' call center which is being inundated by 1000s of other stranded customers, you call your agent and she takes care of it, finding you the best alternative there is.
The major disadvantage is that, if you're like me, it's hard to know what the optimal itinerary is until you actually see all your choices. Price is the single most important determinant for me, but it's not the only important thing. I might be willing to pay an additional $50 to get home four hours earlier or go a day earlier to save $120. But maybe I won't - I don't really know until I see exactly what the choices are.
So what websites do we use when we're booking flights? I'll cover that in the next post. There are a couple of new entrants to the crowded field of airline booking sites. And the most surprising thing is that you can't rely on just one!