A little knowledge can go a long way, in fact, it can help you get to Florida for a lower fare and with less hassle

By Vanessa Slade

Airlines set their fares based on the competition. They start by deciding what prices to charge for travel between two destination points and hope they can get it from travelers like yourself. If the destinations are also serviced by other airlines, there's pressure to offer lower fares so they can beat out the competition and sell more tickets.

Built-in restrictions can force business travelers to fly when the airline wants them to fly, thereby avoiding business traveler discounts. If you call and ask for the fare between two points, they'll quote you a price range. If that range is $150-$250, everybody wants the $150 fare, so they impose some restrictions.

The restrictions might involve advance purchase, staying over on a weekend, etc. The airlines know that 35%-50% of the potential audience will not qualify for the lower rates because they have to travel right now, don't want to spend the weekend, have to be at their destination on a specific date for business, etc.

Your airline ticket is actually a contract between you and the airline. For the amount paid, they promise to deliver you to your destination point at a specific time (give or take) in one piece. You promise to be there at the correct time and adhere to any restrictions they set forth (no smoking, no guns, etc.)

FLEXIBILITY CAN PAY OFF: To get the best prices, stay flexible and try to travel within the restrictions. It never hurts to ask the reservation operator what you can do to lower the fare. You might find that traveling two weeks later than you planned will get you a lower fare. traveling on a weekday (Tuesday or Wednesday are the lightest air travel days.)

DELAYS PAY: If your flight is delayed more than 3-4 hours, ask the airline representatives for a meal ticket. If delayed overnight, ask for a hotel voucher.

If a flight is overbooked, the airline will ask for volunteers and offer some compensation or travel vouchers. If not volunteers step forward, passengers are selected based on the airline's bump-choosing procedure (which is top secret.) Those bumped receive some monetary or voucher compensation and if they cannot be delivered to their destination point on another aircraft with a specified time, additional compensation is paid.

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THINKING AHEAD SAVES TIME: Getting your tickets in advance and check your baggage at the curb at airports offering this service eliminates waiting in long lines upon arrival at the airport. Ask the operator to mail you your tickets when you make your reservations, and if you made your own reservations, most airlines will also mail them to you. The other option is picking them up at the airport...not a good idea.

SEATING: Get your seat assignment in advance. You'll have a wider choice of locations and can walk right up to the boarding gate check-in. Getting your seat in advance lowers the odds of you getting bumped if the trip is overbooked. Once you have your boarding pass in hand, it's unlikely you'll get bumped.

FREQUENT FLYERS: Frequent flyer clubs have a variety of offers but who's offering what and when can get confusing. A group called FreeFlier will enroll you in more than 25 different U.S. and foreign airline, hotel and car rental bonus programs for a small fee. For information contact Free Flier (212/727-9675).

COMFORT: Avoid bulkhead seats. Request a window seat. You're assured you're not hemmed in between two passengers and if it's an long flight, you can prop your head against the window. If you tend to have stiff necks and headaches from sitting, buy an inflatable collar pillow you can slip behind your neck and the airline seat for comfort.

The painful, plugged-up feeling is caused by the difference in air pressure between the aircraft cabin and your middle year. Because children's eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the nasal and oral passages, are smaller and more easily blocked, kids often suffer more than adults. Swallowing and yawning help to open up the tubes. As the airplane descends, pinch your nose shut, close your mouth and blow gently.

The fatigue caused by crossing time zones compounds the problem of jet lag. Once you're reached your destination, try to adjust to the local schedule right away. If you arrive during the day, spend time outdoors - sunlight helps the body adjust to the local time. In the evening, follow your usual bedtime ritual.

Low humidity in airline cabins can cause headaches, skin and eye irritation and soar throats. One solution is to avoid alcoholic beverages and drink a glass of water every hour or so. If you wear contact lenses, remove them or use a saline solution every couple of hours.

MORE INFO: You can get a complete airline and airfare education by studying any of the following: Fly Rights - A Guide To Air Travel in the U.S. (Consumer Information Center, Pueblo CO 81002 - $1); Plane Talk and The Air Travel Consumer Report, both available from the Department of Transportation, Consumer Affairs Office, Washing DC 20590 - free); Facts and Advice for Airline Passengers (ACAP, Box 19029, Washington DC 20036 - $5).