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How to snag the lowest air fare

A round trip from Philadelphia to Venice on Alitalia for $247? This offer, seen on Travelocity, seemed like a steal until Consumer Reports' reporter discovered, just before booking, that taxes ballooned the price to $767.

How about New York to Nashville on Frontier Airlines for $87? Great, but the outbound fare was available on only two dates, and the reporter couldn't find a comparable return fare within two months of departure.

Hidden fees, fine print and blackout dates can make locking in a low price as tricky as a soft landing in turbulence. Travelers are bombarded with offers, deals and price fluctuations on a day-to-day basis, so to help navigate the maze and save money, CR's experts came up with some helpful tips to cut costs and lock in the best rates:

*Check fares early. Most airline and travel sites make it convenient to set up alerts to track fares.

Take advantage of the alerts, and start searching for flights 3 1/2 months prior to booking domestic flights and 5 1/2 months before booking international flights. That's when the market begins to sort itself out and lower fares begin to appear.

*Compare prices. Airline and third-party sites often list identical prices but have different electronic reservation systems that add and remove fares at different times. One system can often trail another by up to five hours.

Be sure to check the airline's own site, which can be cheaper because there is no commission.

*Look beyond discount airlines. Discount airlines aren't always the cheapest. Airlines cannot afford to be more expensive than their competitors for comparable flights at comparable times.

*Be wary of when you buy. The greatest number of cheap seats are available on Tuesdays at 3 p.m.; most sales begin on Monday at 8 p.m. and end on Thursday at 8 p.m. Be mindful of booking weekend flights -- those are popular with both business travelers and vacationers.

*Consider a connecting flight and don't delay. Connecting flights can be substantially cheaper than flights that are nonstop, especially for international travel.

If you delay booking your flight until seven to 14 days of travel, chances are you will pay a premium. Airlines would rather leave a seat empty than sell tickets at a steep discounted rate.

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Kitchen essentials

A new "must have" kitchen gadget seems to emerge each week, especially on TV infomercials. CR asked its Facebook fans which basic gadgets they actually use, then tested several variations -- some 40 products in all.

CR discovered some clever twists on the tried-and-true, as well as a few brave new variations that could warrant a spot in your kitchen drawer:

*Garlic press: Oxo Good Grips Garlic Press, $16. Large garlic chamber, ergonomic grip, built-in rubber cleaner. Lever-style garlic presses let you mince cloves with minimal pressure.

*Peeler: Kyocera Ceramic Peeler, $18. Comfortable handle and sharp ceramic blade that adjusts to left, right and horizontal positions.

*Grater: Oxo Good Grips Box Grater, $18. Multiple grating surfaces, soft grip, nonslip base and optional storage container with measurement markings. Box graters offer the best combination of stability and grating options but are bulky. Consider adding a smaller, hand-held rotary grater for tableside grating of hard cheese.

*Can opener: Oxo Magnetic Locking Can Opener, $22. Cushioned handle locks shut to hold can secure as you turn knob; magnetic arm keeps lid from falling into can.

*Zester: Better Blade ZestNest, $15. Sharp blade and easy-grip case that holds one-half cup zest. Conventional zesters, with a handle and curved metal end, are easy to use; a grater-style zester can work fast. ZestNest combines both virtues and stores extra zest. The downside: You can't see how much you've zested.