"With the current bad economic climate," one travel agent said in New York, "the airlines are not going to offer any specials on any tickets they can sell at a regular price. What they are saying is, `If you want to travel and you are willing to meet our terms on days and places, you can travel for a cut rate."'

This column will outline steps to get the big discounts when they are available.It assumes that you do not have a ticket in hand yet, as "downgrading" an existing ticket to match an advertised promotional price is now the exception rather than the rule, said the agent, Joseph Vengersammy of Galo Travel.

The airlines are hustling.

The mail is full of coupons and the ads full of specials: For example, British Airways sent out coupons for free round-trip companion tickets on one flight a day from New York to London or one a day to Manchester, England, between Jan. 15 and March 15; the return, valid until March 25 - the Monday before Easter - is good for one flight a day from each British city.

If London is the choice, a ticket to travel Monday to Thursday, purchased 21 days ahead, would cost $632; for weekend travel it would be $685.

(British Airways created an even cheaper deal a week later, and Pan Am, TWA, Continental and Virgin Atlantic matched it: $249 for a New York-London round trip, meaning that two people could travel to London for $498.

The last departure date is March 17, the last return March 22. The disadvantage of this one is that reservations could not be made and nor tickets bought until 48 hours before the flight.)

Continental is sending a set of coupons to its frequent-flier members. A coupon is good for a discount of $35 on a ticket costing $100 to $250 or $50 on a ticket costing over $250. These are valid for flights between April 10 and June 15.

By the time an ad appears or a coupon arrives, the few promotional-fare seats on the most desirable flights may be gone.

Everyone who flies is aware by now of yield management, the computerized technique that controls the number of seats offered at a certain fare and that keeps revising the number on the basis of demand and expectations of no-shows.

Airlines do not usually advertise their specials until they apply for government approval, but the line's agents begin selling it beforehand. This is what wipes out the good fares on the good flights on the day of the first ad.

One irate traveler said that he phoned Delta on Nov. 19, the day a $25 companion fare was advertised, to buy tickets from Hartford to Atlanta on Jan. 25 and back on Jan. 27, 66 days thence.

He said the prime-time tickets were already gone and reported that he was told that only 15 seats on the flight he wanted had been available at the companion fare to start with.

This traveler could have had the fare if he bought a ticket for midmorning departure and a late-evening return, but that was not what he wanted. Or, more correctly, he did not want the fare enough to adjust his hours of travel.

So a "get that fare" manual for the consumer starts with the question of day of travel. Be flexible.

For most regular fares, the cheapest days for travel are usually Tuesday noon to Thursday noon. But the deeply discounted fares may have have other rules, so the first question to ask the ticket or travel agent is, "What days of the week would qualify me for that bargain fare?"

If the fare has cut-rate fare available in midweek, it may save $25 or more each way.

An illustration: On Jan. 17, Midway Airlines was quoting a midweek round trip from Midway Airport in Chicago to New Orleans in February after Mardi Gras at $227, including the $5 Chicago fuel surcharge; United and American were quoting the same price out of O'Hare.

With a Friday departure and a Sunday return, the price rose to $270.50. Valerie Stringer of Travel Avenue said that there weren't many weekend seats available at that price.

New York-West Coast flights, which have been on a $298 special that expires Feb. 16, had different rules on travel days.

United, Continental, American, Delta, USAir, Midway, America West, Northwest and TWA all specified departures from New York Wednesday to Saturday and returns from California - all the major airports were available on this special - Sunday to Wednesday.

As Vengersammy said, "These weekender fares are not designed to meet the traveler's needs, but to see if the traveler is willing to pay for the seat on the airline's terms."

If flexibility on day of the week produces no results, the alternative airport move is the next step. Unless you are really familiar with what your alternatives are, you should first do some research.

So the second big question for saving money is,"What if I leave from that airport instead of this?"

Here are two examples of big savings with alternative airports.

In the middle of January, TWA came out with a round-trip fare of $298 from Philadelphia to Albuquerque, N.M., valid until Feb. 20. The available days were Wednesday to Saturday outbound and Sunday to Wednesday return, and the maximum stay was eight days.

From New York, the Albuquerque fare was $453, making the alternative a saving of $155, ample to cover a train trip to Philadelphia.

There have been cases where bonanza fares are announced, with the sale to begin like a race, at 7 a.m. Eastern time on some later date. One strategy for this is available to people who have automatic redial devices on their telephones.

One reader said she started dialing the number before the appointed hour and, when she got a busy signal, simply pressed the button to redial the number until she got an answer. This does not happen often, but redialing is probably worth trying.

It seems to me as the market gets crazier, it is silly to do without a travel agent.

Travel agents are notified by the airlines about forthcoming coupons, or learn from one client that there are coupons in the mail and call to tell another.

If the agent has been working with you for some time, she or he will keep you from buying a ticket for a trip where a forthcoming coupon may save you money.

If there is lots of notice and the venture is worth the reward, the agent can become the equivalent of the redial device, checking the prices regularly.

The discount travel agency is another way of saving money.

It charges you a flat fee for producing a ticket but rebates to you the discount it is given by the airlines for selling its wares. The more expensive the ticket, the more worthwhile this is.

But a discount agency will not attend to vague ideas or shop around for several weeks. On domestic tickets, Travel Avenue (641 West Lake Street, Chicago, Ill. 60606; //(800//)333-3335), formerly McTravel, rebates to you the airlines' discount of 7 to 10 percent of the price and charges $10 for writing the ticket. For a ticket over $100, the agency guarantees a saving of $5. The transaction is all by phone, with credit card charges. The ticket is sent by United Parcel.

The agency's clients know what they want when they call, although flexibility on days is a big key.

The president of Travel Avenue, Richard Dickieson, said that the agency did not have a rule on how long agents could stay on the phone with one client. But it is clear that a salesperson cannot take a caller through every possibility and needs to close up a sale pretty quickly.