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Travel

A few weeks ago, Rick Seany of FareCompare published an article about the upcoming Cheap Flight Day. This certainly piqued my interest. While I have heard of National PB&J Day (April 2) and Men Make Dinner Day (the 1st Thursday in November — mark your calendars, ladies), I hadn’t ever heard of an airfare discount day. This warranted another look.

Here’s what I found: if you’re contemplating air travel between late August and mid-November, this is the time to start looking. While August 23 has been dubbed Cheap Flight Day, it’s actually more of a marker for the week or two at the end of summer when airlines traditionally drop their prices.

Tell Me More

With most summer trips in the rearview and families preparing for back-to-school, flight demand decreases near Labor Day weekend. In response, the airlines adjust fares downward. While this cost-shift often falls on August 23 (as it will for United this year), it’s not the Black Friday of airfare… merely a threshold for when prices begin to fall. Think of it as the first day in late summer that you should plan to travel, if you want to save a bunch.

For example, say you’re headed from Washington, DC to Orlando for a last-minute beach hoorah before autumn. On Southwest, prices begin their decrease on August 22 and drop further on the 26th. It’s not August 23, but close enough.

Southwest

However, wait a few more days until after Labor Day weekend, and you’ll save hundreds of dollars more!

Southwest Sept

How Else to Save on Flights

Not looking to fly just yet? No worries — there are tons of ways to save on air travel year-round. Here are a few of our favorites:

Use Miles

The easiest way to earn free miles is to snag a travel rewards credit card. Many of these cards, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, earn you 2x miles on all purchases you make.

With this card, you’ll also get 40k bonus miles for spending $3,000 in your first 90 days with the card, which is enough for a $400 credit towards travel. Since you can take your miles in the form of a statement credit, you’re not limited by a booking portal or specific airline.

Spend your money as usual and rack up the cash back rewards. Choose when and how you want to fly, then redeem your earned points and save.

Don’t Pay for Baggage

Unless you’ve flown exclusively on Southwest, you’ve probably paid a baggage fee once or twice. You know that if you don’t travel light, your fees can end up costing as much as your fare!

Some companies, like Southwest, include up to two bags free. This can save you a pretty penny, considering most airlines charge $25-35 per bag!

Alternately, you could pick an airlines credit card like the Citi® Platinum Select / AAdvantage® Mastercard®. This is a great choice for people who fly American Airlines. Not only will you earn 30k bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months, but you’ll also enjoy your first checked bag free. Oh, and it’s not just for you —  this free bag offer extends to up to four travel companions, so your whole family saves.

If you end up finding a Cheap Flight Day deal on a different airline that you can’t pass up, you can still save on baggage fees. All you have to do is travel lighter. Most airlines allow one carry-on bag and one personal item (such as a briefcase, purse, or backpack) on board, free of charge. If you can fit everything for your last-minute getaway in a smaller suitcase, you will save a nice chunk of change… and avoid waiting at baggage claim after you arrive.

Book Early

Cheap Flight Day may be a great option if you’re looking for a quick getaway, but this isn’t the best practice to use throughout the year. Previously believed to be a strict “54 days out,” the magical number for booking in advance isn’t so cut and dry. Most experts agree, though: booking last-minute isn’t the deal it once was.

According to CheapAir.com, the prime booking window actually lies somewhere between 21-120 days out from the flight. Quite the range, yes, but it varies according to time of year and even airline.

cheapair

Your best bet is to use a flexible date search, if your plans allow, and try to fly mid-week. Friday and Saturday flights are traditionally more pricey than Tuesday and Wednesday options. Try to book somewhere between 2-3 months before your flight to save the most.

Sign Up for Emails

Want to be the first to know about sales throughout the year? Sign up for your favorite airlines’ email newsletters. Often, these will be for travel 2-4 months out, so you have time to plan that trip to see your parents and even coordinate time off from work.

In Summary

Airlines may not view August 23 as a strict fare-slashing deadline, but this day historically marks the beginning of discount travel. Cheap Flight Day should still be marked in your calendar, if you have the interest and flexibility in late summer or  impromptu travel.

While you can expect to save at least 10-20% on airfare by booking travel on (or near) August 23, you can see above that I found price cuts of up to 66%. Be sure to check out your airline’s “flexible travel date” calendar when searching flights, to ensure that you get the best deal. Sites like Fly.com and FareCompare are also good aggregate resources, if you’re not picky about the airline.

Don’t forget to use your travel rewards credit cards and/or frequent flyer programs, to save even more on fares and baggage. Happy travels!

Have you taken advantage of late August-October flight deals? Have these fare cuts prompted you to plan a trip you might not have otherwise taken?

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Whether you’re planning a very special trip next year or just travel a lot, there’s currently a limited-time offer you really ought to think seriously about. The Discover it® Miles-Double Miles your first year card is effectively offering double miles for the first year after new cardholders (but not existing ones) open their accounts.

Here’s how it works: After the first consecutive 12 billing periods that your new account is open, Discover® will double all the miles you’ve earned and apply them to your account in the next billing cycle. Cardholders earn 1.5x miles per dollar spent on purchases, then double all the miles you’ve earned at the end of the first year.

A good travel rewards card
This would be of less interest were the Discover it® Miles not a pretty good travel rewards card already. But it is, because:

  1. You can fly any airline at any time — with no blackout dates.

  2. You can redeem any number of miles you want, from one up, at any time.

  3. You can redeem miles against travel purchases made on the card within the previous 180 days. These travel purchases include airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, travel agents, online travel sites and commuter transportation.

  4. You can also redeem miles for cash as an electronic deposit to your bank account.

  5. It has no annual fee.

  6. There are no foreign transaction fees.

  7. Discover® pays you back for your in-flight Wi-Fi fees (up to $30 a year) with an automatic statement credit.

  8. There’s no cap on the miles you can earn.

  9. Rewards never expire, although Discover® will credit your account with your rewards balance if your account is closed or has not been used in 18 months.

  10. You get a 0 percent APR introductory rate on purchases for 12 months.

  11. There’s no fee for your first late payment, and paying late won’t increase your APR.

All this, and Discover® has just introduced the Freeze ItSM on/off switch, which lets you prevent new purchases, cash advances and balance transfers on misplaced cards in seconds by mobile app & online.

Getting the most out of this offer
If you’re planning a big trip and want your rewards to cover part of the cost, you’re probably going to want to use your card for most or all your travel and non-travel purchases prior to departure. The tricky bit is timing when you buy your tickets and pay for other upfront travel-related expenses.

Remember, you can only use rewards to pay or partially pay for travel items purchased within the previous 180 days. Discover® doubles all the miles you’ve earned in your first year during your 13th billing cycle, so depending on the timing of your plans and the purchases you make on the card, there may be a bit of a gap when it comes to redeeming all of your miles.

One possible solution is to buy tickets and so on less than six months before you travel, taking advantage of the Discover it® Miles card’s zero percent introductory APR. That way, you can avoid interest and maximize the contribution your points make to the final cost — although you are going to have to make at least minimum payments during the months between buying the tickets and redeeming the rewards. Ideally you probably want to clear the balance during that 13th billing cycle, which is not only when your bonus rewards become available, but also when the variable APR kicks in.

By all means use your card while you’re on your trip to build up more rewards, and provide triggers (hotel bills, car rental, rail tickets …) for other rewards redemptions. After all, it doesn’t charge the foreign transaction fees — typically 3 percent — that many cards do.

However, you should note one possible drawback. This concerns Discover’s® acceptance by merchants in certain countries. You need to check the map on the company’s website before you travel to make sure your card’s going to work at your destination. Oh, and don’t forget to call Discover® with your itinerary details before you set off or there’s a good chance your international activity will set off fraud alarms and see your plastic temporarily frozen.

Not looking for a travel card?
There’s no doubt the Discover it® Miles-Double Miles your first year is currently exceptional, but not everyone’s on the hunt for a travel rewards card.

Indeed, you may find cash back more desirable than miles, in which case you probably should explore Discover’s® other offerings. Discover® is currently offering to double all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year automatically (again, only for new cardmembers) on cards including:

  • Discover it®-Double Cash Back your first year

  • Discover it® card-Double Cash Back your first year

  • Discover it® chrome for Students-Double Cash Back your first year

As always with credit cards, the trick is to match the plastic available to your personal requirements, desires and spending patterns.

Visit CardRatings.com to learn about these limited time Discover® credit card offers and to read a full review of Discover it® Miles-Double Miles your first year.

Advertiser Disclosure: Many of the credit card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which ConsumerismCommentary.com receives compensation. Compensation may impact which cards we review and write about and how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). We recognize that our site does not feature every card company or card available on the market.

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While living in New Jersey and having family in the Los Angeles and Orange County area, I’ve always found that United Airlines has had the best fares. And because 75 percent of my total airline travel has been to these locations, I decided a few years ago to make my main credit card the United MileagePlus credit card (formerly Continental OnePass). While in general, cash back rewards credit cards are the best deal for most people who use rewards credit cards, because I flew United frequently enough and was happy to spend my rewards on flight upgrades, the MileagePlus card is the card that made the most sense for me.

Some recent changes are convincing me to switch to a different credit card, perhaps one that earns generic travel rewards that can apply to any airline or a straight cash back card. First, my travel destinations have expanded. With family now in San Diego, a girlfriend in Phoenix, and an eye to visit more cities in the future, I’m using a variety of airlines once again.

Perhaps more importantly, United has just made some significant changes to its frequent flier program. Rather than rewarding travelers with frequent flier points based on miles traveled, United is rewarding customers based on the amount of dollars they spend.

Here’s how this would potentially affect me.

Next week, I am flying to San Diego, California, and the week after, I’ll be returning. The trip is business-related; I’m making several presentations at the Digital CoLab event, speaking about entrepreneurial leadership one day and leading a session on crafting effective mission statements in another. I’ll also get a chance to see my family and girlfriend while I am on that side of the country. I booked my flight several weeks ago, spending $507.90, or $568 including all taxes and fees. The tickets available were “class S,” or a deeply-discounted economy fare.

I also spent $150 and 40,000 miles to upgrade both flights to first class.

Under the old system, which is still in effect, I will earn 4,850 award miles. The new system will reward me, a non-elite member of the frequent fliers program, five points per dollar, or 2,540 miles. This new system will be put into place in 2015 and will put people who frequently fly United, but perhaps only several times a year, at a significant disadvantage.

The most frequent travelers, in United’s Premier 1K elite level, will earn 11 points for every dollar. Business travelers who often purchase full-fare or first-class flights will receive a significantly better benefit than those of us who search for the lowest price economy fares.

United’s change follows a similar announcement from Delta.

This illustrates the danger of rewards credit cards. Points aren’t real currency; the company that issues the points can, at any time, decide to change the rules about how points are earned or decide to change the value of each point. Today, a one-way flight with any particular airline might be 50,000 points; next week, that same flight might cost 75,000 points. Airlines certainly use a calculation to determine what makes the best conversion rate for points taking many variables into account, but to the traveler, changes in the reward program can be arbitrary and frustrating.

It also means that anyone who considers himself to be a master of his own personal finances must continually reevaluate the rules and terms of the rewards program. It’s legal bait-and-switch; consumers are inclined to sign up when a program is a good deal, and as the company erodes the value of what they are offering, they are counting on consumer inertia. Inertia is a powerful force. It’s partly what has kept in me bad employment situations much longer than I should stay, inertia has kept me living at the same address, and it’s the same force that has kept some of my money in the same national bank for twenty years.

Companies rely on inertia to maintain profitable customers. But this change, for me, comes at the same time that United will have less value to me as an airline.

Here’s why this is great from United’s perspective. It’s the same reason that airlines are more inclined to add more incidental fees. United and other airlines can keep fares low. Anyone can easily search for the lowest fares across multiple airlines, pitting airline against airline for the same routes. This used to be the job of travel agents, but now anyone with an internet connection can see the same information that travel agents used to see. Even with airlines that keep consolidating, this has driven competition in price — at least, in advertised base fare price.

With the frequent flier program changes from Delta and United, the airlines can keep advertised fares low while reducing the total expense of each fare booked. It’s rare for there to be any real win-win scenarios between companies and their customers. There is no way for United to paint this program update as a positive experience for most customers because most customers simply search for low prices and end up with discounted economy fares.

The biggest winners, other than the airline, are people who frequently fly first class, and most of those fares are paid by corporations. Even those who buy full-fare economy tickets with the new program terms next year will likely have an advantage over the current program. There’s only one reason someone would buy a full-fare economy ticket when a discount is available — for the ability to receive a refund if travel plans change — but this is a small percentage of customers.

Will you be affected by Delta’s and United’s changes to their respective frequent flier programs? Will you be on the winning side or losing side? Will you reconsider how you earn miles, such as through a mileage reward credit card?

Here are the full changes to United’s MileagePlus program.

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Whether you’re the most frequent of frequent flyers or someone who is more likely to have miles expire, understanding the real value of what you’ve earned is the key to making the right choices as a consumer.

With miles programs constantly being changed and consumers’ loyalties challenged, those with frequent flyer miles have to decide when it’s worth trying to accumulate more and when it’s time to cash in. And even when you want to use your miles for a flight, it might not be that easy.

“Miles are worth less and less all the time — that seems to be a constant,” said Jason Cochran, editor of Frommer’s and author of several travel guidebooks.

“The airlines have given so many (miles) out, partly in the pursuit of loyal business travelers, that they can be incredibly hard to redeem. It used to be that you could find a decent seat many months ahead, but now the market is flooded with points and seat inventory is down, so you may find you can’t find a free direct flight on miles almost immediately after schedules are published.”

There’s no one-size fits all answer for consumers, but having some perspective before using your miles should help to make a wiser decision — wiser, certainly, than letting them expire.

You know you’re an infrequent frequent flyer when you get that notice in the mail about converting your miles to magazine subscriptions or to donate or to redeem for some sort of gadget. For many, choosing one of those options might well be the best way you can use miles when you aren’t close to getting an upgrade or earning a free flight.

First, before you react to the notice that your miles are expiring, often sent by magazine subscription companies, be sure that they really are.

“Lots of outfits will warn you that your miles are expiring, and it’s true that some airlines do allow your miles to expire if your account doesn’t have any activity on it,” Cochran said. “But that takes a long time, and notice that those outfits don’t always tell you when your miles will be expiring. Look at your balance page yourself. It might be a year in advance, and if you should take another flight between now and then, the deadline will bump further in the future.”

Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, said for most consumers the ideal use of miles is, well, on airplanes.

“The best use of frequent-flyer miles is almost always cashing them in for flights or upgrades. The economics are straightforward: the cost to the airline of giving away a seat that would have gone unsold anyway is negligible. As a result, a ticket with a published price of $500 can be had for 25,000 miles. That amounts to getting 2 cents for every mile redeemed.”

When airlines offer frequent flyer club members the opportunity to redeem miles for any number of different goodies, from golf clubs to electronic gadgets, they have to pay for them. That means the consumer ends up being charged more miles than they would to get the same value in airline tickets or upgrades. “For example,” Winship explained, “members of United’s MileagePlus program would have to pay 56,400 miles for a Callaway X2 Hot Driver golf club, widely available online for around $330. That’s less than 1 cent per redeemed mile. A Roku 3 media player, available from Amazon for $89, costs 18,200 United miles, delivering less than half-a-cent per mile in value.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get the golf club if your goal was to not have to use any money out of your own pocket. “It’s nice to have options, of course,” Winship said. “But in the great majority of cases, non-flight awards are simply lousy values.”

As for using your airline loyalty bounty for hotel stays, Cochran said a similar rule applies. And it’s worth some pause before going in that direction.

“What’s worth more: what it would cost you to get that room on your own, or how much it cost you to accrue those miles to begin with? Given how easy it is to get a discount on a hotel room these days, the answer is almost never in favor of getting rid of miles for that purpose,” he said. “Yes, it takes a little homework, and not everyone wants to price-check the street value of what they’d be using their miles for — and that’s exactly what these pitches are about. They want you to spring for the convenience of the redemption for something other than an air ticket, and they know you’re unlikely to take three minutes to figure out if you’re actually getting a deal.”

That leads to an exception to the rules. It’s the one thing that consumers who truly have accumulated hardly any miles can take advantage of it. Magazine subscriptions.

Winship said using miles to buy subscriptions is actually a good deal. “In pure dollars-and-cents terms, cashing in miles for magazine or newspaper subscriptions can deliver a solid return on investment,” he said. “But really, how many magazines do you want in your mailbox?”

If you miles really are expiring, however, and you’re at the low end of the miles spectrum, at least it’s something. And least you know it really can be a good deal.

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10 Ways to Save Money on Air Travel

by Guest Author

We’ve been enjoying the middle-of-the-week holiday for more than one day, so we’re going to share a guest post from partner site MainStreet.com. By Jeanine Skowronski Airfare certainly isn’t cheap. According to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration, increased demand, coupled with major airline mergers, will lead to higher tickets prices through 2012 and […]

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Mac Users Spend More Money on Hotels

by Luke Landes
Hotel Room

For one to be an aficionado of Apple’s line of computers, it might be fair to generalize that one is willing to spend more money than necessary for perceived superior form — as a device that carries the same function, just on the more common technology modeled after the IBM personal computer costs considerably less. […]

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New Travel Plans: Tips for Taking a Real Vacation

by Luke Landes
Continental Airlines Logo

I try to visit my family on the other side of the country a couple times a year. Most of my family has migrated to the west coast from the east. The migration, at least in my immediate family, began over ten years ago, and more of the clan join the California contingent each year. […]

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Buy Airfare Six Weeks in Advance

by Luke Landes
Airplane

Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), a company that processes airline transactions for travel agents and consumers, has analyzed 144 million transactions for domestic flights in 2011 to better understand airlines’ pricing schemes. The study found the lowest fares were available six weeks in advance of the departure date. I’ve always been under the impression that the […]

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10 Ways to Avoid Hotel Fees

by Luke Landes
Hotel

I’ve noticed over the past few years that the fees and surcharges that appear on my hotel bills are creeping steadily upward. I’m apparently not alone with this observation. According to a new study by Dr. Bjorn Hanson from the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, hotel fees and surcharges will account for $1.8 […]

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Traveling First Class for the First Time

by Luke Landes
Continental Airlines Logo

After using the Continental Airlines OnePass Plus Card as my primary credit card for personal and travel spending for the past year, and the resulting accumulation of miles in Continental’s frequent flyer program, I decided to cash in. For 35,000 points, I was able to upgrade the round-trip ticket from Newark to Chicago. I would […]

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