• Be flexible. Seaney said he shaved $600 off a spring-break trip by shifting his family's usual travel days of Saturday to Friday to Tuesday to Saturday. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to travel. The most expensive are Fridays and Sundays. Think too about red-eye flights vs. prime-time morning or late afternoon. "Definitely there are some flights that have lower fares, but they're not the ones most people want to take," Hobica said.
• Use alternative airports. That doesn't just mean flying out of Midway Airport in Chicago rather than O'Hare or even going an hour plus out of the city to Milwaukee, Wisc., rather than O'Hare but looking even further out. Consider this: Virgin Airlines is offering a round-trip sale from Chicago Midway to Los Angeles for $198 until June 15. But you want to go to San Diego and a round-trip flight from Chicago will set you back some $500. For a family of four, renting a car from L.A. and driving the roughly 120 miles to San Diego could save upwards of $1,000.
• Don't book too early. If you're thinking about a summer trip to Europe, wait until April to start planning in earnest, Seaney said. If you're intent on taking a trip this fall, wait until July, even August to book flights and then plan on going in September of October, one of the slowest travel periods of the year. If flights aren't booked some 80% to 90% ahead of the season, airlines will be forced to cut the fares. "Demand is a fickle thing," Seaney said. "Are there three people behind you willing to pay what you're not willing to pay? That's the question and no one knows the answer except the airlines in real time."
• Sign up for frequent-flyer and travel alerts at a number of airline and travel sites. You'll get e-mail notices when flights are put on sale.
• Use social media and group-buying discounts. Twitter, for example, is gaining status as a go-to for last-minute sale fares because some airlines think e-mail is too slow. Last month Virgin offered $77 travel certificates for a mere $7 on round-trip flights between Chicago and San Francisco or Chicago and Los Angeles. On March 2, it sold nearly 2,950 $100 certificates for $25 for round-trip travel between Dallas and San Francisco and Dallas and Los Angeles.
• Shop around. You will need to look at a number of travel sites to compare prices, including the airlines' own sites. Southwest's prices aren't on popular large-scale sites like Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz, American Airlines has pulled its flight from some of those sites while Delta has taken its flight out of some smaller sites.
• When you see a good price, jump on it. Some sales — say, for new routes — will extend for a couple months; other sales will last only a few hours. Determine what your sweet spot is for fares, plus fees, taxes and surcharges, and be prepared to purchase if it comes up.
• Be on the lookout for peak travel-day surcharges, a fee the airlines have added to holiday and summer travel, even Super Bowl travel. The fees range from $10 to $30, depending on the day, on ticket prices that already have been marked higher.