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by Michael Shapiro | May 17, 2013

With spring now in various degrees of full swing, you're probably investigating or booking summer flights -- for vacation, for upcoming industry conferences or for some other face-to-face gatherings. We have braced for the challenges of high fares and budget cuts, but we may be faced with some stressful summer travel nonetheless. So a couple of items promising some relief, or insight into travel challenges, caught my attention.

First off, there is the question of when to book. You know those articles that promise the inside scoop on the best times to book flights? If you're like me, you read every last one of those articles, knowing full well that the complexities of carrier competition and price fluctuation make it nearly impossible for anyone to provide definitive information. But in the spirit of scientific discovery, here's the latest from CheapAir.com, which, by name alone, must have some degree of expertise.

The online search and shopping engine crunched the numbers from 560,611,868 fare searches over the course of 2012, for more than 11,000 domestic markets. And their numbers proved that indeed, it really doesn't matter what day of the week tickets are booked. While many airlines do frequently publish system-wide fare sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they also run many smaller, unpublished sales on other days. In other words, you never really know and no day provides significantly better deals than another.

In terms of advance booking, CheapAir's number crunching revealed the best time to book, on average, was seven weeks before the trip. CEO Jeff Klee acknowledges "a million caveats apply" to that number, and that it doesn't account for specific city pairs, time of year, day of the week you're flying and so on. That's purely an average based on the aggregate for domestic flight searches. Booking tickets at the last minute was the most expensive way to go, not surprisingly, yet booking travel seven months in advance also was very pricey. CheapAir's study found that prices steadily declined from seven months out until that seven-week mark, at which point they gradually started to rise again, shooting up dramatically just before the departure date (see graph from CheapAir.com, below). We are now seven weeks away from July 4th weekend, in case you were about to do the math, so act accordingly.
airfare chart2
CheapAir.com recently has been touting a free new iOS app that, among other things, provides the ability to do voice-activated flight searches. In my own unscientific testing, I did find the company's search engine turned up some good deals that other sites did not. I'll be adding the app to my flight-research routine. Your mileage may vary with the voice-activated searches, however: No matter how many different pronunciations I attempted, "Guadalajara" was not recognized.

Beyond the stress of fare-finding, there lies the increasingly complex labyrinth of airport navigation. The opportunities for losing a bag, a camera, an iPad or a phone somewhere along the way have multiplied. The FinderCodes Travel Kit is meant to provide some peace of mind, in the form of waterproof tags with a QR code that contains your contact info. For $30 you get two large luggage tags, one medium tag for carry-ons and four adhesive tags for tech gadgets. Because the QR code links to an online profile to which you have access, you can update your information whenever it changes. It makes it relatively easy for someone who finds your lost gear to contact you.

Of course, basic luggage tags also make it relatively easy for someone to contact you -- and, in my experience, some airlines require a completely filled-in tag. But if you're hesitant to put your complete address on a tag, lest some crafty scoundrel rob your house while you're away, the FinderCodes Kit solves that problem. No contact info is visible to the finder online; the platform connects loser and finder without revealing details. (Plus, people rarely put luggage tags on gadgets, which is one intended use for the smaller FinderCode labels.)

FinderCodes just made the return of said gear a bit easier, too, with the addition of the Re-TurnIt feature. Now, anyone who finds the gear can bring it to a FedEx Office and use the FedEx Pack and Return service to send it your way. The QR code on each tag links to directions to the nearest FedEx Office. Once notified by FinderCodes, the owners of said items can authorize the shipping method via their online profiles. How many Good Samaritans will bother to get your gear to a FedEx Office? This feature is fairly new, so that remains to be seen -- and FinderCodes did not return my request for any data related to how many lost items have been returned through the system. Still, the Re-TurnIt capability seems an obvious benefit if finders choose to use it. So, even if $30 doesn't get you complete peace of mind in the event of lost gear, at least it provides some degree of hope.

Safe travels.