Smell the tailgate party -- it's college football season. But if you're flying in for a game, you might be headed for a headache. Cutbacks at major airlines have made flight choices more difficult this fall, especially to smaller college towns. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when planning your trip.
Here's the rundown if you haven't flown in a while: Planes are fuller, and there are fewer flights because of schedule cutbacks across the industry. Fares have gone up, particularly to smaller towns that are often dominated by a single major airline. Airlines have also become more dependent on fees and surcharges, which means there are plenty more to look out for.
But there's good news, too. Unless you're flying to a game around Thanksgiving, peak day-travel surcharges are virtually nonexistent this year. Also, fall fare sales are abundant, but you have to know where to look. Expedia and Orbitz will give you a range of options to compare, but don't rule out sites like Travelzoo, which point out the best sales. Fans take note: Deals include one from American Airlines, with flights starting at $59 each way on more than 100 routes, and a nationwide fare sale from AirTran with fares starting at $54.
On the offense
It's important to sign up for fare alerts on sites like Travelzoo or Kayak to keep on top of the latest deals. Airlines have shifted toward last-minute sales aimed at drumming up attention on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and getting passengers to book fast. The sales, often only two or three days long, don't leave you much time to decide whether the fare is a good one. That's where research comes in handy. If you know a basic range of fare prices, you can feel more confident to book a low price or let a higher one go.
Another important tip to remember for college football fans? Be sure to include several airports in your search. If you're a fan of the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, for instance, include flights to Atlanta as well as Birmingham. A few hours in a rental car might be worth a drop in price -- especially if you were planning to rent a car once you reached campus in Tuscaloosa. Fans of the Ohio State Buckeyes, another top-ranked team, will have less trouble finding cheap flights. Columbus, Ohio, is one of the largest cities home to a top-ranked college football team, along with Fort Worth, home to Texas Christian University.
University of Florida die-hards can look forward to more choices this year. American Airlines is adding service to Gainesville, Fla., on Oct. 1.
Experts suggest that travelers book about eight weeks in advance. Still, it's not the end of the world if you don't have that much time. Although ticket prices are higher than last year, there are more fare sales now than during the summer because airlines are eager to fill seats in one of the weakest periods of the year. The month after Labor Day can be especially bad for the airlines, as summer vacations end and kids go back to school. So if you're looking for a good deal, it's likely still out there. Hotel prices don't sway so quickly, but rooms are also cheaper than last year.
There are a number of travel agents who will offer special deals to college football fans. You're really likely to score if your team is headed for a bowl game. Although there are benefits to a face-to-face meeting with a local agent, there are also plenty of options online. Sites like Sports Traveler offer package flights, hotel stays and game tickets to all the major BCS championship games.
Another option that fans are sure to remember: ExpressJet, which is based in Houston, has teamed up with Premiere Global Sports to offer 35 charter flight packages for the college football faithful. The price includes an open bar on the plane and transportation to the game. Some of the packages, which start at $399, also include game tickets and pregame entertainment.