Here are some tips to keep in mind when searching for a ticket, regardless of whether you are using a travel agent or the Internet:

  • Start your search as early as possible (at least a month in advance). While better rates may come along, it'll give you a starting point. Also, many deals involve making your reservation at least 21 days before departure. But last minute tickets can sometimes be the cheapest, if you buy a last minute e-fare. These are listed by individual airlines on their websites, or at a travel website such as www.webflyer.com. These last minute fares give you very little flexibility, but they are often very cheap. Read more about this in step 3.

  • Stay vague about your dates. Ask for the lowest fare, saying that your dates are flexible. That lets you know the best fare you could get so you can change your dates if price is the most important factor. Just to let you know, the cheapest dates to fly are usually in the winter, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's time. So if you can be really vague, try to arrange for your flight sometime during the cold season.

  • If you can adjust your times to fly, you increase your chances of getting a cheap fare. Taking the "red-eye" flight can pay off for your wallet because no one wants to depart at 2 a.m. and arrive at 6 a.m.

  • Airlines typically attach restrictions to discount fares, like a 7-, 14-, or 21-day advance purchase and/or a Saturday night stay. Ask about these restrictions, so you'll know what to expect next time so you can start your search early when discounts seat are still available.

  • Use the same airline for both directions. Since round trips are about the same as one-way tickets, it doesn't make sense not to.

  • Keep checking. It behooves airlines to have full planes, so they may add discount seats without warning. A flight you might have given up on could yield you a seat if you checked back in a day or two or even a week or month later.

  • Use your age. Ask about senior discounts or student discounts. If you're a member of Student Advantage, you can sometimes find discounts too.

  • Ask about airports other than your destination's main airport. Look into secondary airports outside the city or even in a nearby city that is less popular. People going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras who find no flights available can get lucky by flying into Baton Rouge, an hour away, or Mobile, Ala., two hours away by car.

  • Check smaller discount airlines that may not be included in the central reservation systems. These smaller airlines usually only have area-specific flights available (e.g., the Southeast), but they are much cheaper than the big airlines. So especially consider them if you're not travelling too far.

  • Join a travel club. If you fly more than twice a year, the price of joining can easily make up for itself in the long run.

  • Fly on a mid-weekday. Fridays and Mondays are the most expensive times to fly. And weekends are obviously in high demand. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to fly. Also, staying overnight on a Saturday can save you money, because then you'll get charged an excursion rate, not a business rate.

  • Try a consolidator. A consolidator is an intermediary company that buys tickets at a discount directly from the airline. You benefit from their rates. However, while the consolidator industry has gained respect in recent years, be sure to use one that is reputable. Some have gone out of business overnight, leaving customers in the lurch. One way to find consolidators is to look for the small advertisements with 800 numbers they place in the travel section of any metropolitan newspaper. Some consolidators specialize in overseas flights while others focus on the domestic market and still others do both. Some even give additional discounts to students. You also may want to ask about cancellation charges as such tickets usually carry stiff penalties for changes or cancellations.

    Here are the web sites of some ticket consolidators. They use the central reservation systems to find cheap fares but also offer some tickets at an even greater discount.