Flying the (Wallet-) Friendly Skies

Air travel may be a necessary evil, but it is a demon that can be tamed, or at least mollified enough to make the red-eye bearable or keep a last-minute flight from breaking the bank. "How?" you ask. Through some savvy research and work online—and fortunately, most of the work has been done for you.

According to the January 2005 State of the Industry report from Successful Meetings, air travel is the third highest meeting-related expense (behind food & beverage and accommodations) and the least negotiable meeting commodity. In fact, the negotiability of air travel has dropped significantly since 2002, when it was still the least negotiable commodity. So perhaps it is time to look at alternatives. While the majority of the tools listed here are for individual or small group travel, there are also travel management solutions available that can take on much larger groups looking to save money. Here is just a sample of air travel resources available, for free or for a fee, that may make budget travel easier.

SideStep is a flight search engine that pulls information from other sites such as Orbitz as well as individual carriers, and compares them all at once to give you the best price. While the site cannot guarantee its prices are the best out there, SideStep gives a reliable overview of what is available in order to help you make a wallet-friendly choice. When visitors choose a flight they wish to book, SideStep hands them over to the appropriate party (for example, Continental, JetBlue, or Orbitz). The advantage of booking through the carrier is that users retain the ability to accumulate frequent flyer miles and other incentives provided by brands with which users are already familiar and comfortable. SideStep also offers a toolbar that shows side-by-side comparisons from different sources and has recently beta-launched a vacation package search. In addition to flights, SideStep can provide hotel, car rental, cruise, and last-minute travel information and also offers an e-mail newsletter called TravelFinds Spotlight that is more thematic or destination-focused. As many still question the power of online communities, is showing that there is strength in numbers. FlyerTalk, a part of the WebFlyer Network, is a set of chat and discussion boards in which travelers can complain, question, explore, or simply wax poetic about any travel-related issues—though most discussions focus on air travel and frequent-flyer programs. In addition to discussion features, FlyerTalk offers airport codes, a biweekly e-newsletter, and even postcards. The FlyerTalk community welcomes all travelers; unregistered users have access to much of the site, but to really get involved, visitors should register for a free account. Registration involves creating a user name, which also serves to maintain the anonymity of members. The community nurtures new members, offering a new users' guide, site etiquette information, and hints about posting and using boards. As an established online forum, FlyerTalk is also clear about its rules, expectations, and disciplinary actions against members who act inappropriately. Its methods seem to be paying off, as FlyerTalk members recently secured a meeting with the upper echelon of Continental to discuss perceived holes in service.

GetThere, a part of the Sabre Travel Network, which also owns Travelocity and IgoUgo, among others, focuses exclusively on corporate travel. GetThere products include online systems and add-on modules designed to offer clients a complete travel management solution, while keeping costs low and processes simple and allowing for administration and customization. GetThere DirectCorporate, tailored for corporations with annual travel expenditures over $10 million, enables users to book or change flights and obtain itineraries and also integrates with a client's corporate intranet. For smaller companies, GetThere offers DirectMidMarket as well as DirectGovernment for government agencies. Within the solution, GetThere Web Connect allows users to compare fares from 50-plus travel sites and carriers. Finally, the GetThere Connection, a client extranet, provides resources and tools, including best practices, monthly Webcast information, message boards, and GetThere product information.

Although air travel may be unavoidable, it is often possible to make your flight more comfortable by changing seats—if you know the tricks of the trade. SeatGuru, a site for business and leisure travelers started in 2001 by Matthew Daimler, is at your service. Using SeatGuru, you can determine the best place to sit depending on personal preferences. Users select their carrier, then the aircraft on which they will be flying. SeatGuru then displays that aircraft and shows details on each seat, such as which have extra legroom, may not recline fully, tend to be colder, or do not have a window. The site also has a version tailored for PDAs and provides such varied information as a "Bulkhead 101" page, links to travel safety sites, and details on how to submit seat comments. SeatGuru does not directly allow visitors to change flight information—that must be done through an individual carrier or travel agent—but it provides the necessary information to make an informed decision.

The Airfare Blog
The Airfare Blog is designed to highlight last-minute fares that most carriers don't advertise, or advertise sparingly. The site's founder George Hobica and his team scour the Internet for the lowest fares, to save travelers legwork in addition to cash. The Airfare Blog is updated regularly and offers links to book flights through sites such as Travelocity, JetBlue, or USA3000, since the site does not offer booking capabilities itself. Hobica encourages visitors to e-mail him questions as well as donations to keep the free site up and running. A main page offers national fares, or users can select from a list of geographical regions to help narrow their search—for example, Atlanta/Birmingham, AL, airports or New York/Newark-area airports. Check the site frequently if you are looking to get a highly reduced fare, and if you find one, pounce, because it won't be there for long. But pay attention to the restrictions mentioned on the site before making a purchase. The Airfare Blog also links to "Ask George," an online archive of Hobica's weekly syndicated travel Q&A columns.