Summer travel planning in winter? Not such a crazy idea

NEW YORK Ė Hoping to get a good deal on summer travel? Start planning now.

The official start to spring is still a few days away, but airfares for summer are rising fast. Many fare-watchers think summer prices will be significantly higher than last year.

In past years, some savvy travelers who held out on buying tickets reaped the reward when prices fell. But fleet and route cutbacks have given airlines more of an upper hand than at any time since before the recession. Hotels and rental-car companies also are raising prices.

Large U.S. airlines collectively have tried to raise prices four times this year and succeeded twice. Those price hikes, as little as $5 apiece, are expected to accelerate in April and May as many vacationers lock in their plans.

How much ticket prices go up will depend largely on the price of fuel, often an airlineís biggest expense. The average fare was 9 percent higher in January than a year earlier, according to the trade group Airlines for America.

So whatís a would-be traveler to do?

Study early

Start looking for a summer airfare about three months ahead of time. (Thatís right around ... now.) If the fares seem too rich for your blood, donít panic. Just because fares are higher than last year doesnít mean they wonít fall between now and your summer vacation.

If youíre worried about waiting, use this trick: Select the flight you want and start booking it online. When you hit the point where you select a seat, look at the seat map. If itís still fairly empty, wait. Itís likely the airline will lower prices to fill those seats.

Another trick: If you search repeatedly for the same flight over a couple of days, clear the ďcookiesĒ from your web browser. Theyíre small data files that let a website remember things about you the next time you visit. If you donít clear them, you might see higher airfares than someone searching that fare for the first time.

The option to clear cookies is often found in your browserís ďToolsĒ menu.

Shop around

All travel booking websites are not created equal. Some may offer lower prices than others. There also are benefits to visiting different types of sites. Expedia and Orbitz offer package deals that can save you hundreds of dollars if youíre booking a hotel or rental car together with airfare.

Those with fare-predictor technology, such as Bing.com, let travelers know if itís a good time to book. And Southwest advertises fares only on its own site, so itís important to check there if the airline flies to your area. More airlines are also offering sales on their own websites to draw traffic there.

And to ensure youíre getting the best deal, donít forget fare alerts. You can set up alerts for specific destinations, or general ones for your departure city, at airfarewatchdog.com or farecompare.com.

Twitter also is a great place to find deals. Follow airlines that fly from your home airport as well as a handful of travel sites to cover all your bases.

Follow the deals

Not sure where you want to go this summer? Orlando, Fla. Ė home to Disney World and, most recently, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Ė is topping fare-watcher lists for value this year. Both Orbitz and Hotwire ranked it the top destination for deals and entertainment. The average airfare there is about $306, according to Orbitz, while the average hotel room rate is just $104.

Other destinations in Florida such as Tampa and Miami also are considered good values. Several airlines, including Spirit and JetBlue, have added flights to the Sunshine state over the last year, heating up competition and bringing down fares. Hotel rates in all three of those cities are under $150 a night.

Besides Florida, Hotwire ranks cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston as good-value vacation spots because of the wide range of discounts. Orbitz says Las Vegas also will hold some of the best deals this year because of some of the lowest airfares in the country and average hotel room rates under $100.

Be flexible

Donít just compare airlines. Itís important to compare airports, too. A longer drive might be worth it for a cheaper fare.

And donít assume that bigger airports offer cheaper fares. While itís usually true, airlines sometimes put less-popular fares to smaller cities on sale to fill seats, said FareCompareís Rick Seaney.

Another big mistake, Seaney said, is assuming so-called discount airlines always offer the cheapest fares. Airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue, just like their competitors, tend to offer higher fares on routes where they have less competition.