To get educated, Parsons suggests checking out the Web sites for three of the major discount carriers: AirTran Airways, Southwest Airlines, and American Trans Air. See if they fly to your destination city or to a nearby airport, such as Baltimore instead of Washington. "Go from one cheap city to another cheap city," Parsons advises.
You can either take those airlines or see if competitors have good deals on those same routes. In some cases, major carriers will match their low prices on those routes. And you often can get the low fares with reduced or no advance-purchase requirements and sometimes, no Saturday night stay, according to Parsons.
FEWER RESTRICTIONS. American Trans Air, which has gateway hubs at both Chicago's Midway Airport and Indianapolis International Airport, serves 30 destinations. It has eliminated advance-purchase requirements, determining the price of tickets by their inventory, Parsons says. In some cases, you can get $198 round-trip fares coast-to-coast.
AirTran, which is based in Atlanta and serves 30 U.S cities, many along the East Coast, sells one-way tickets and doesn't require weekend stays to get a good deal. Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based carrier that flies to 55 U.S. cities, gives good fares with a seven-day advance purchase and a one-night stay. Southwest also has other low last-minute and sale fares, such as coast-to-coast for about $200. Some other discount airlines to consider: Vanguard, Frontier, Sun Country, JetBlue, and National.
Careful: Tickets on canceled flights from several discount carriers won't be honored by the majors
Check out airports within driving distance of your destination and compare the prices. It's not always obvious. For example, says Terry L. Trippler, an airline expert for OneTravel.com, four business travelers from an 80-employee company in Mancato, Minn., took his advice and drove to the Sioux Falls, S.D., airport instead of Minneapolis. That smart move got them to Los Angeles for a song -- $258 per person, instead of $1,600 each. Other alternative cities: Toledo instead of Detroit, San Jose instead of San Francisco, Bakersfield or Long Beach instead of Los Angeles, and Manchester, N.H., or Providence, R.I., instead of Boston.
One caveat: If you buy a ticket on a discount airline, you may not be able to use it on another carrier if your flight is canceled. Check what the policy is before you purchase. Trippler says tickets from Southwest, Vanguard, JetBlue, and National aren't accepted by other airlines. "It's one disadvantage," he admits. However, you can usually switch American Trans Air and Frontier tickets to other airlines, and Air Tran has agreements with a few carriers, including United.
Sometimes, of course, flying on a major carrier makes the most sense. Not only do they sometimes match discounters' prices on competitive routes but the nation's major airlines also try to best each other. And that can mean some super bargains over the Web.
COST VS. CONVENIENCE. For example, earlier this year, American offered a $156 round-trip fare to New York from Denver, a route that United dominates, recalls Parsons. Then, United countered with a rock-bottom $56 round-trip ticket to New York from Dallas, a route on which American has the lion's share of the market.
Major airlines offer you more flexibility, such as the ability to switch carriers at the last minute. They all have reciprocal agreements to accept each other's tickets in the event your flight gets canceled and you need to rebook on another airline. Weigh cost vs. convenience, and you'll be able to choose the deal that works best for you. By Janin Friend