If you're waiting for air fares to drop further before making your travel plans, don't hold your breath. The airlines almost did themselves in slashing prices 50% last summer. This travel season, they're likely to stick with conservative cuts of 25% to 35%. While that's not bad, the cuts are off a higher base price. The savvy traveler will have to look harder for great deals this summer.
One tactic is booking in niche markets, where startup carriers are forcing prices down. USAir lowered prices around the Northeast in anticipation of being undercut by newcomers Kiwi and Skybus. Round-trip fares from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh are now $158, almost 50% off the usual $292 fare, says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares magazine.
BE SOCIABLE. What's more, "niche airlines have their own little perks," such as two-for-one sales, says Parsons. Southwest Airlines, which serves 36 major airports, has a "friends fly free" fare through Sept. 7. Off-peak flights are even cheaper. Round-trip from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago is $118 peak for two. At $98 off-peak, it's only $49 per person.
Most airlines are offering special fares for seniors, students, and children. America West sells a $720 eight-coupon book to seniors for coast-to-coast flights. That boils down to $90 a leg.
Then there's the alternate-city ploy. Why fly from Cincinnati to Chicago for $460 for two when from Louisville, Ky., some 95 miles away, you and a companion can fly Southwest to the Windy City for only $78 for two? Headed for San Francisco from Atlanta? Don't pay $318 for one, fly America West into Oakland for only $450 for two.
COUPON HUNT. Another way to save, suggests Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer, which specializes in frequent-flyer information, is using discount coupons offered as promotions for credit cards and travel clubs. The Entertainment/Passbook for 1993 put out by Entertainment Publications in Troy, Mich., has two $75 coupons for Continental.
International flights aren't big bargains, but many European carriers are offering EuroFlyer Pass coupons that let you fly around a country or the Continent for a flat fee or discount. Fly British Airways to London, for instance, and get a pass to Athens for only $149 or Tel Aviv for $199, says Parsons. France's Air Inter lets you fly any five days out of 30 for $179. Hawaiian Air and Liat in the Caribbean have similar deals for would-be island hoppers.
And above all, don't be too worried if you miss one fare war. As Parsons says: "Cheap fares are like good weather. Stick around and they'll come back."