How to Book Travel Online for Less

With clear skies and rising temperatures around the country, the summer travel season is nearly upon us. And unless you've got money to burn or a first-born to offer, now's the time to book your travel plans. Here's how to get away without breaking the bank.

How to Book Travel Online for Less

Timing Is Everything

Airline ticket pricing is a fickle mistress. While prices overall have steadily risen over the last two years—and showing no signs of stopping any time soon—the cost of an individual ticket depends on a myriad of factors, the largest of which being when you buy it and when you want to leave.

By and large, prices are lowest when book your flight at least 21 days in advance and rapidly increase as the departure date draws near. Seat pricing often fluctuates depending on the departing day, with weekend flights costing more than mid-week ones. If you can be flexible on what days you fly, say on a Tuesday rather than a Friday, many additional seating options will be available for less. Obviously, there are exceptions to that pattern: booking for major travel days like the night before Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Superbowl Weekend are going to be uber-pricey no matter what, and flying during the North American travel season (June to August) will see many of the less expensive seats purchased months in advance.

Sometimes it also pays to be patient. Airlines will often post "weekend deals" for flights and routes they're trying to fill. Prices for these seats likely won't be as 21-day advance purchases but if you're travelling last-minute, they'll get your butt in a seat for less than what you'd pay at the ticket counter.

How to Book Travel Online for Less

Get a Price Check

Used to be, if you didn't buy your tickets directly from the airlines, you'd have to go through a intermediary, a travel agent. These people would put together vacation packages for travelers, including flights, car rentals, and hotel accommodations. The rise of the Internet, of course, put a stop to all that silliness. Now, a plethora of travel sites (including the airlines themselves) perform the same function, you've just got to know how to use them effectively.

Every major American carrier will gladly sell you a seat directly from its website. United, Delta, Virgin, American, Southwest, Jet Blue, and Alaska all do, as well as a number of smaller, regional carriers. If you tend to fly primarily on one carrier than the others, sign up for the company's newsletter or mobile app—which often contain deep discount offers—and follow them on Twitter—Virgin and JetBlue both regularly drop great deals through the social media service. If you can afford the debt, sign up for an airline-branded credit card that delivers miles or other flight perks.

If you're airline agnostic and want to compare the fares for a given time and trip across multiple airlines, there's no need to check each website individually. Instead, use a cost comparison site like Fare Compare, KAYAK, or Skyscanner. These services not only list the flights available for your specific departure time—sourced from both the airlines themselves and other booking sites like Hotwire and Priceline—it also allows you to see all the flights for that date from up to three other travel sites. So say you're flying SFO to JFK, leaving May 23 at 6pm. The service will show both the flights available for 6pm, but also all JFK-bound flights out of SFO for the 23rd. You might find something cheaper if you fly two hours earlier. Hipmunk might be your best option of all; it sorts by price just as effectively as other providers, but also by how much of a pain in the ass your connections will be.

How to Book Travel Online for Less

You Want Lodging with That?

Chances are, you're probably going to need transportation and accommodations once you get to wherever you're going so you might as well bundle those in with the price of the flight and save a few bucks, right? Sites like Orbitz, Expedia, and Priceline all provide this service and operate much like the flight comparison sites above. Each service has different limits to the discounts it can provide for any given package, so you'll do well to give all three a quick look before pulling out your credit card.

For the more adventurous traveler, apps like HotelTonight (iOS) and AirBnB (iOS, Android) offer great rates on last-minute hotel/apartment/couch deals.

How to Book Travel Online for Less

Who Says You Have to Pay Cash?

There's no reason to fork over your hard earned cash when you've got hard-earned miles that can cover the cost but you'll have to book early. Airlines only designate a couple of seats per flight to reward passengers (those paying with miles). Only about 10 percent of a carrier's total number of seats are reserved for rewards and those go quickly—even on otherwise empty flights. You can thank the airlines' yield management software, which determines the price of a particular route or flight, for these blackout dates.

Mile Rewards are also governed according to their status as either Saver or Standard. Saver rewards are usually capacity-controlled but require half as many miles as Standard rewards, which are available regarless of how full the flight. In general, you should expect to pay somewhere in this ballpark when using saver miles, though for off-peak travel, these figures may be as much as 5,000 miles less:

  • 120k - Free round-trip first-class ticket US to Asia
  • 100k - Free round-trip first-class ticket US to EU
  • 60k - Round-trip one-class upgrade US to Asia
  • 50k - Free round-trip coach ticket US to Asia
  • 50k - Round-trip one-class upgrade US to EU
  • 50k - Free round-trip coach ticket US to EU
  • 45k - Free round-trip first-class ticket in the continental US
  • 30k - Round-trip one-class upgrade in the continental US
  • 25k - Free round-trip coach ticket in the continental US

Well, what are you waiting for? Book your flight and go see the world—or at least visit your parents. Hey, it's still better than the In-Laws.

[Smarter Travel - Budget Travel - Independent Traveler - Cheap Flights - Wild Junket - Mashable - Image: doomu / Shutterstock, tratong / Shutterstock, FuzzBones / Shutterstock, michaeljung / Shutterstock]