Heartstopper: the BIG PRICE DROP on travel deals only VIPs know

These days, there's no such thing as a free lunch in the airline industry. (In fact, these days, there's usually no lunch at all.)

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If you save money, you usually incur some kind of loss. The formula I keep in mind when shopping for a flight is "Dollars saved = discomfort + restrictions + inflexibility." Expensive full-fare tickets offer the ultimate in flexibility, but I've never met anyone spending his or her own money who flies that way. Before grabbing the cheapest ticket you can find, make sure it meets your travel needs with the best combination of reliability, economy, and flexibility. Want to relish your trip, follow these tips:

Research flights online. Flight search engines compare fares available at multiple airlines, online travel agencies, or both, and then sort them by price. I've tested a number of them on a variety of journeys, both transatlantic and within Europe. Surprisingly, I've seen that the industry's big sites — like Travelocity.com and Expedia.com — can miss several good-value results that other sites turned up. Overall, Kayak seems to have the best results for both intercontinental and intra-European flights on a combination of mainstream and budget carriers. (However, for cheap flights within Europe, Skyscanner has a slight edge.)

Be ready to buy. Given how erratic airline pricing can be, you want to be ready to pounce on a good fare when you see it. Waiting to talk with your travel partner could cost you a good fare. As you delay, dates sell out and prices generally go up. Figure out in advance what constitutes a good fare, then grab it when you find it. Long gone are the days when you or your travel agent could put several different reservations on hold while you made a decision.

Consider flying into one city and out of another. It's probably been 10 years since I flew in and out of the same European city. Think cleverly about making what used to be called an "open jaw" itinerary — now dubbed a "multiple-city" trip. Since it rarely makes sense to spend the time and money returning to your starting point, this can be very efficient. In general, the fare is figured simply by taking half of the round-trip cost for each of those ports. I used to fly into Amsterdam, travel to Istanbul, and then ride two days by train back to Amsterdam to fly home (because I thought it was "too expensive" to pay $200 extra to fly out of Istanbul). Now I understand the real economy — in time and money — in breaking out of the round-trip mold. Note that multiple-city flights are cheapest when you use the same airline for each segment.

Pay attention to additional fees. Most airlines levy a hefty "fuel surcharge," which varies depending on the airline and the price of fuel. Charges for checked bags are another headache, although most transatlantic flights do not charge for the first checked bag (ask the airline). Combined with airport taxes (which vary by city), these fees can add hundreds of dollars to your total ticket price. In early 2012, the US government made pricing more transparent by enacting a law that requires the advertised price of a ticket to include all taxes and fees for any flight that includes a stop in the US. Advertised rates don't, of course, include optional add-ins (such as insurance or seat upgrades) — you must opt in for these extras.

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