How to Book Airline Tickets

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Booking airline tickets has become an art form. One day too late, or
choose the wrong layover, and you're paying hundreds more than you
need to. It takes a lot of sleuthing and a bit of finesse to get the seat
you want, the price you need and the dates you prefer. Here's how to
get from point A to point B--on your own terms.

  • Start your search at least 21 days ahead of time to take advantage of advance-booking fares. Travel midweek and stay over a Saturday night whenever possible. Stay on your toes: The cheap seats always sell out first.

  • Look for flights on your frequent-flier carrier first and compare its cheapest rate to those on sites such as Priceline.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com. Also check out consolidators such as AirTravelCenter.com and auction sites. Many airline Web sites offer lower Internet-only fares.

  • Consider flying through a secondary airport. Orange County and Burbank are alternatives to LAX, and Newark International can substitute for the busier and oft-delayed JFK or LaGuardia airports. You may have to drive further, but if flights are impossible to get or impossibly expensive, you might be surprised by the ease of use and friendlier prices of smaller airports.

  • Request your seat preference (aisle or window) when buying your ticket. You could find yourself with a middle seat if you wait until check-in. SeatGuru.com has detailed maps of the best and worst seats on specific planes, so you can avoid seats that don't recline and keep an eye out for those with extra leg room.

  • Request any special assistance or equipment (such as a wheelchair) for disabled travelers prior to arriving at the airport.

  • Keep the length of the flight, the layovers, the amount of gear you're carrying and the time of day in mind when deciding whether to buy a seat (often discounted) for an infant. Domestic carriers permit you to hold children under 2 years of age on your lap, while international flights require a ticket and a seat for every passenger.

  • Place special meal orders at no extra charge, if they are offered on your flight. For example, United offers diabetic, low fat and low cholesterol, low-calorie, high-fiber, low-protein, low-sodium, kosher and vegan meals. There are also meals for children. These special meals are often tastier than the regular fare.

  • Find out whether tickets are refundable, transferable or changeable (and at what cost) before you buy. Get e-tickets when possible. Having paper tickets mailed usually involves an extra fee, and they're like cash: If you lose them, they're gone.

Tips & Warnings

  • Join a frequent-flier program if you haven't yet. Even if you fly on a bunch of different airlines, the miles will eventually add up.
  • Print boarding passes online usually a day before your flight.
  • Sign up for e-mail newsletters from airlines to read about cheap fares.
  • If you opt to fly with an infant on your lap, bring your car seat on board anyway, head directly to the very back (and most undesirable) row and install the seat next to the window as required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If the flight is not full, you will be allowed to keep your child in the car seat, which is far more comfortable (and safer) for both of you.
  • If your favorite airline doesn't go to your destination, ask if it has reciprocity with another airline. For example, United's partner for much of Western Europe is Lufthansa, so miles booked through United on Lufthansa earn you United frequentflier miles. Northwest has a similar deal with Continental and KLM.

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