How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets for your next Flight
Last updated: 7/29/2016
How to Find a Cheap Flight Ticket? Are you tired of worrying that you paid a lot more for your airplane seat than the guy sitting next to you? Airline pricing changes by the minute and often times makes no sense. Most people do 75 searches before buying airline tickets! Short of befriending an airline employee and using friend passes, here are some tried and true tips on finding a cheap airline flight.
There is NO magic day/time to get the cheapest flight - Confessions of an airline revenue manager
How Do We Book Tickets?
We will get into specific techniques below, but here is a recent example of money saving steps we used to book a ticket.
- Start shopping 4 months in advance
- Figure out what times and days were optimal
- Set a price alert in Hopper and Expedia for the flight
- After several weeks, we got a feel for the lowest fare
- Immediately book a ticket at this lowest fare, only 1 was available
- The next day an alert popped up again and we bought the rest of the tickets at the same price.
The first rule in finding a cheap airline ticket is to have some flexibility in where you fly out of and your destination. If you have to fly from say Seattle to Denver on a specific day and return a specific day and time, you will inevitably be forced to spend a ton of money.
In San Francisco Bay Area, you could fly in and out of:
- San Francisco
- San Jose
You need to factor in any transportation costs to and from the various airports.
We have saved $200 just switching airports, and spending $30 more for a taxi shuttle.
If you need to fly to Los Angeles, you have these nearby options:
- Orange County
Sometimes flying out of a smaller airport will save you money over the famous larger airport. Always check nearby airports to see what the options are. Flight comparison engines can help you do this. We also check each airport to see what flights arrive, and on which airlines, to determine other ways to get to our destination.
Refundable Tickets are the most expensive. Try to only purchase non-refundable airline tickets. Find cheap flights that are within your specific day and time windows and stick to them.
Another option is the train or bus. It will take longer but you might save a ton of money.
The more stops your flight has on the way to a destination, the cheaper your ticket. You do waste a lot more time in transit, waiting for flights and connections. Calculate your free time’s value and when reasonable, select flights with stopovers to reduce costs.
If you do not live near a major airport, you might consider driving rather than flying to a major hub such as Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, etc. to save on ticket costs. A two-hour drive along with parking might save you hundreds of dollars per ticket.
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Pickup the Phone
With the advent of the Internet, few people pick up the phone to order airline tickets. People should!
- Not all seats listed online
- You may get a cheaper flight
- More complex multi segement flights are easier
Have your itinerary, frequest flyer information, and credit card ready and always be ready to note down information. Ask about surcharges or extra fees, and check for restrictions.
Cheapest Day to Fly
The airline industry understands when most folks like to fly and intelligently raise rates during those days of the week and times of the year. Obviously flying right before a major holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas will cost you an arm and a leg. Consider flying on the holiday day of, to save money.
Note: taking flights that arrive in the evening rather than earlier in the day maybe a waste of money. You may be better off taking a more expensive morning flight. Your day would be available and you wouldn’t fly in just to go to a hotel.
The best day to fly (lowest cost to most expensive)
Friday and Sunday could cost you 20-40% more.
Staying over a Saturday may help you reduce flight costs. Try your flight searches with and without a Saturday.
Best Months of the Year to Travel Cheaper
If you have kids in school, you are almost doomed to pay more, travel when the weather is hot, and the popular destinations are crowded. The computer algorithms are programmed to MAXIMIZE the airline's revenue.
The rest of us can avoid these times of the year and save:
- Spring Break - Various weeks in February - March - April
- Summer - 3rd week in May through 3rd week in August
- News Year's
When to Buy your Airline Ticket
We recommend you purchase your airline tickets well in advance. Recent studies have shown that 50 to 1000 days before a domestic flight, yielded the lowest fare. International tickets are best purchased at least 3 months ahead of time, after that the fare steadily climbs.
Six to eight weeks is a good interval to start checking fares. The cheapest seats are usually available 2 to 4 months in advance for domestic flights, while international flights have the lowest cost fares 3 to 5 months before hand. Start early so you can watch for special prices.
Best Day to Buy an Airline Ticket
We feel that it is a myth that you will find the best rates at Wednesday at 1pm. This rule is not very pertinent anymore. You need to keep search again and again to find the best fare. Earlier in the year is far more important that a particular day.
When you travel is far more important than when you buy your ticket. The best day to buy an airline ticket has been changing around. In the past, it was like this:
- Most people have free time on the weekends to do their travel planning; hence the airline industry has learned that this is the best time to charge you more.
- The best time to buy a ticket is Tuesday at 3pm EST or Noon PST. Most people are at work then and cannot do their shopping! This time happens when airlines release their discounted flights. The cheapest fares are usually pulled on Thursday.
- Sales are usually announced mid week.
In October 2014, The Wall Street Journal did some analysis and found that Sunday and Saturday were the best days to buy an airline ticket. There are less bookings on the weekend from business corporate travel. Monday is the worst day to book, possibly because airline executives come back to work and decide to raise prices.
There is lots of debate on what is the best day to buy a ticket. Frankly we think this is NOT as important as buying WAY in advance.
The best days to buy a ticket in order are:
Airline Tickets Returns - Cancelling a Ticket
Found a cheaper price? The Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow customers to cancel flights within 24 hours of purchase if the flight is 7 days or more away.
Check Ticket Cost From Related Airlines
Sometimes code-chair partners like American Airlines and US Airways have the same seat on the same flight at different prices even though they are now one company. Eventually when they consolidate to one system, the prices will be the same. For now, check each site individually. This discrepancy happens with other airlines all the time, due to lag time in syncing up systems.
If you need to fly to one city, then on to a second city, and then return home, as of March 2016, you need to book each segment individually or else you will not get the lowest price for the trip. The cheapest fares can no longer be combined.
Book separately can save a lot of money, the downside is that if your plans change, you will pay a $200 or so penalty on each ticket you have to rebook. If one flight gets delayed and you miss your next flight, you may be considered a no show, costing you even more to redo ticketing.
Book To and From Tickets Separately
This technique is great if you need a ticket in the next couple days:
Book to and from tickets separately. It may be cheaper to buy 2 round trip tickets and use only the first left of each, leaving the other leg to go unused. Do this using different airlines to prevent getting your ticket cancelled.
Buying Two Tickets Separately
There are times when airlines are having fare wars in a specific city. Lets say Chicago has very low fares to and from San Francisco and New York. It may be cheaper to buy a New York to Chicago round trip ticket in addition to a Chicago to San Francisco ticket to save money.
This is a legal strategy but you need to make sure that you can check your bags all the way to the destination city. You also need to ensure that if you miss your first flight, your second flight doesn't get cancelled because you were a no-show. Always call the other airline and tell them you are running late and need to reschedule.
Hidden City Ticketing
This forbidden technique has you only using the first segment of a multi-segment flight to save money. Fares often do not correlate with mileage flown. Do not use this too often. Recently a website called Skiplagged made it easier to find hidden cities, but was sued to stop doing this. It is difficult to find flights to accomplish this on your own.
British Airways in 2015 has stated that if you are found to not take a final leg of a trip, they may cancel any remaining parts of the trip as well as send a bill for the difference in price!
You want to fly San Francisco to Denver but it costs $499
- San Francisco to Dallas costs $399 but stops in Denver first.
- Take the cheaper flight and ditch the last segment.
Hidden city ticketing is technically against the rules, but cal also be used. Limitations:
You cannot check luggage.
If Airlines catch on, you could get your frequent flyer account cancelled. Do not enter your frequent flyer number for these flights.
Your return flight will probably get cancelled, so use this for quick one way trips.
Fly Shortcut helps you find these flights.
Back to Back Ticketing
Another prohibited strategy is back to back ticketing where you buy a pair of round trip tickets for the same route by taking advantage of Saturday night stay lower airfares but you really stay at home instead. This is much more advantageous for round trip fares that discount Saturday night stays. It does not work very much domestically anymore.
Lets say that we want to take two Monday to Thursday business trips from San Francisco to Dallas.
- Buy the first ticket for Dallas that leaves on Monday but returns next Friday
- Buy the second ticket that starts 3 days after your first flight, but goes in the reverse direction leaves San Francisco on next Monday back for San Francisco
Many airlines prohibit this strategy and look for people attempting to perform this, if you have to do this, use two different airlines.
Buying Multiple Tickets - One at a Time
We recommend you always shop for one person at a time when comparing ticket prices. If you enter more people, the airline will be forced to charge everyone the highest individual ticket price. As an example:
- Person #1 $100 ticket cost
- Person #2 $150 ticket cost
- Airline would have to charge both people the highest rate, $150, if booked at the same time
- Making separate bookings will save you money ($50 in this case)
Book each ticket individually to save money. You can call the airline and have all these reservations linked together. This will give you a better chance of sitting together or handle flight changes easier.
This is a pain but it can save you a lot of money. We have done this several times.
Buying One Way Tickets or Hacker Fares
Sometimes it is cheaper to buy separate one way tickets for each part of your trip. It may be even cheaper to book the outbound ticket on one airline, and the return ticket on a different airline. This happens mostly on high traffic routes.
Round Trip Tickets Cheaper in the Reverse Direction
Some round trip tickets cost more going in one direction when compare to the other. For instance a round trip ticket, New York City JFK to London LHR might cost $1500 but a London LHR to New York City JFK may only cost $1200.
This commonly occurs on International flights and travel to popular destinations like Orlando, Honolulu, or Las Vegas.
- Supply and Demand - Increased competition for seats in one direction, usually the originating city
- More last minute buyers in a particular direction
- Holiday travel
- Currency fluctuations
- Sales only in particular Countries
Sales, Coupon Codes and Promo Codes
Be sure to plan your trip well in advance, so you understand who the major airlines that service this corridor are. You can then watch their Twitter feed, Facebook page, and email specials to find either a sale or special discount code. Sign up for emails from all the airlines you will consider flying. Also sign up for frequent flyer emails.
Be sure to watch these Twitter accounts: @virginamerica, @flyfrontier, @jetbluecheeps, @AirfareWatchDog
Watch these twitter hash tags: #fatfingerfares
Watch the FlyerTalk Mileage Run Deal Forum
If you are attending a convention, be sure to check for any applicable discounts.
Baggage and Carry On Fees
Airlines have gotten smarter in hiding the true costs of a flight. Over $6 billion was collected in fees last year. They ding you with fees for everything from carry-on baggage to checked luggage to meals. Understand each airline’s policy before booking your flight. This will help you understand the real cost of your ticket.
In June 2014, American Airlines, Delta, and United, reduced the acceptable carry on maximum size to 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, 9 inches high from 24 inches, 16 inches and 10 inches.
JetBlue, Southwest, and other domestic carriers still permit bigger carry-ons.
We have avoided baggage feed on some airlines including Alaska Airlines by utilizing their policy to check bags at the gate for free. When a flight is full, they might announce free checking in of bags at the gate, to reduce the time it takes to board a flight. This reduces the number of carry on's going on the plane, hence speeds up boarding.
Other fees to watch for:
- Checking in a bike, pet
- Bringing a pet onboard
- Electronic reservation fee
- Oversized bags
- Overweight bags
- Print a boarding pass
The following airlines are usually cheaper and more efficient than the major carriers:
We have flown several of these carriers and found them cheap and safe.
Frequent Flyer Miles
Obviously, if you are a patron of a particular airlines’ frequent flyer program, you will try to use them as much as possible. This may not be conducive to finding the lowest airline prices. Keep this in mind and always try to calculate the exact value of your miles, so you do not waste money flying one airline repeatedly just to get miles. Roughly 10% of miles are actually redeemed for flights. Many are used for expensive magazine subscriptions.
Some credit cards are tied to specific airlines and reap you special benefits such as a certain number of miles after you have spent a specific amount. Look for these offers, if you have good credit.
Alaska Airlines gives $118 Coach Companion Fares every year to card holders. No blackout dates.
How to Score a Frequent Flyer Free Trip Faster
More often than not, the free award flight you want is not available. Here is a technique that can help you score a ticket.
- Call up and book your dream flight and take the first available date
- Select an upcoming date for the same flight, flight number
- Call the airline and check to see if there are seats for sale on that flight
- Keep calling and if there are still seats and the flight is the next day, go to the airport
- Ask to be placed on the standby list and show them your booking for the same flight in the future
- Cross your fingers. Unless there was a stampede of new buyers, you should be on your way
Airline Price Comparison Engines
There are websites that aggregate prices from a variety of airlines. We have found them useful in getting a quick read on airline pricing. Occasionally you will find a good deal. There are some major discount carriers such as those listed above who may not be listed, forcing you to manually check their prices. Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Qantas have specials only on their website. Some airline sites have handy alerts that will email you when prices fall.
A good starting point is Google Flights - They purchased ITA several years ago and have an inside advantage. They key advantage is seeing a calendar of approximate prices depending on the day.
Here is a list of sites to try:
- Expedia - They now own Orbitz, Travelocity, Cheap Tickets
- Orbitz – Has a nice Search +/- 3 days
- Priceline - Always bid 40% less than the cheapest fare you find
- Matrix ITA Software - A great way to search fast
Websites with price alerts
Some airlines will refund the difference if they dropped their air fare within a day. Beware that some will charge a bogus $200 administrative fee when doing this. (JetBlue, Southwest, Alaska)
Make sure you log out and clear browser cookies as they are used to profile users and perhaps increase prices.
Once we have settled on a particular flight, we will also check the website of the airline. You may find a cheaper deal or better availability. This is often the case with United.
What airlines are not on Expedia, Travelocity, Trip Advisor etc.?
Some airlines list on specific comparison engines while others periodically show up in comparison results.
Consider online and local consolidators or ticket wholesalers. They typically specialize in International travel or premium tickets. There may be more restrictions such as no frequent flyer miles or seat booking. Momondo, Vayama, airfare.com, and Asia.com sell consolidator fares from time to time.
Students should check Sta travel for discount airline tickets.
Consider a Travel agent if you have a complex trip. Some can save you a ton of money and time. Check Flightfox for a marketplace of travel pros.
Last Minute Flights
If you have to travel on short notice, there are several options to reduce your costs.
- Bereavement – some airlines offer discounts to those faced with this situation
- Buy Separate From and Return tickets (See above)
- Frequent flyer miles – using miles instead of $$
- Last minute deals – airlines, flight comparison engines, and others have special deals
- Air and hotel packages – you may save money by purchasing a package instead of each element
- Priceline is the king of last minute flights. You will not know your exact flight time or airline name though.
Finding a cheap flight is a lot of work. The airlines have the most opaque pricing schemes of any industry. When each person on the plane may have paid different amounts, you know there is a lot of latitude in finding the best price. With the tips listed above, you have new weapons in your arsenal.
Do you have any additional suggestions that we should know about?