How to Get Cheap Airline Flights
Step One: Pick the Right Time to Buy
Buying airlines tickets 21 days in advance will usually get the you same price as buying them 6 months in advance. As a rule, domestic fares will fluctuate more than international ones (which tend to be more fixed in price). You need only buy your tickets six months in advance if you’re going to travel during peak travel times.
What are the Peak Travel Times?
Peak travel times are summer (for Europe especially) and holidays, like Christmas and Easter break. If you need to travel during these times you should book as follows:
- Summer travel to Europe book by January, February or March
- Christmas Holiday Travel (both domestic and international) book by August or September
- Early fall Travel to Europe, book by June
Get Fare Alerts Emailed to You
Since airline fares fluctuate wildly, setting up an email alert is a great way to keep track of volatile prices. Put in your departure and arrival city at Airfarewatchdog.com and once a week you’ll be sent the best possible fare for that route. Fly.com also has a 90 day fare calendar so you can see when the cheapest fares are. These alerts will also tell you if you should buy the ticket at that price or if it is likely to be reduced further.
What Day Should you Buy on?
Tuesday afternoon is the optimal time to buy because it’s when airlines announce their sales for the coming week. They also release their last minute deals for the upcoming weekend on Tuesdays.
Need to Fly Last Minute? No Problem!
For last minute flights, Lastminute.com may have flights priced just as competitvely as the 21 day in advance price. For example, NYC to Budapest cost $890 round trip when booked 21 days in advance. The same flight was slightly cheaper when booked two days in advance through this site. For domestic last minute weekend flights, check the individual airlines on Tuesday afternoon and see what their weekend specials are. You should fly Saturday to Monday to get the cheapest last minute weekend fares.
More Tips Before You Book
- For peak times, fly on a holiday. If you take off on Christmas, New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving, you’re bound to get a better deal than when flying one or two days before a major holiday.
- Buy two one way tickets. Sometimes you can mix and match prices by buying two one-way tickets. Domestic airlines like Jetblue price their tickets individually allowing you to choose the best prices for your particular route. Also check out Kayak.com’s Hacker Fares which specializes in finding you two one way fares that are cheaper than round trips.
- If you need just a one way ticket and it costs more than a roundtrip ticket just buy a complete ticket and throw away the return.
- Be flexible. The more flexible you are about dates, the more likely you will be able to save on the airfare. Many online sites allow you to choose 3 plus or 3 minus days in terms of departure and return dates in searches.
- Fly from a smaller airport. Leaving from a secondary airport can save you hundreds of dollars.
Step Two - Get the Best Fare Online
Search and compare sites to find the best deals for tickets. The advantage of using the comparison sites is that you can pick and choose among dozens of airlines for not only the best prices, but also for the best schedules which will better suit your needs.
The ITA Matrix search and compare website lets you see a monthly calendar of lowest fares, and exact dates. The only drawback to using ITA Matrix is that once you find the schedule and fare that you want, you’ll have to go directly to the airline’s website and find the fare yourself in order to book it.
Here are some other search and compare sites that will sort through direct booking sites and find you the cheapest fare. The most popular of these sites are listed below:
Skyscanner.com - also great apps for iPhone & iPad.
Momondo.com (flights to Europe)
Hipmunk.com (new to the game, it’s angle is to take the agony out of airline booking)
These sites listed above differ from ITA Matrix in one significant way and that is; once you find the fare you want, it will allow you to choose up to seven direct booking sites so you can purchase your ticket. All you have to do is point and click and you’ll be ready to book. One of the easiest to use is Kayak.com.
With Kayak.com you can search fares by calendar month. Just choose ‘Flex Month’ and the best fares for the month will be pulled up for you to peruse. You can also utilize the price alert feature on Kayak and be alerted when the price to your particular route drops. While you’re on the Kayak.com site check out the toolbox located on the lefthand side. In it you’ll find Fare Charts which will give you a history of fares (you can see lowest fare for your given route throughout the year). Below the toolbox is a chart called Price Trend which will you advise you whether you should buy or wait depending on the airfares.
Why not just use a site like Kayak.com and eschew ITA Matrix altogether? ITA Matrix’s interface is really clean and simple to use so you won’t have six windows popping up leading you to direct booking sites. It’s designed to find you both schedule and fares and since it’s Google owned, its search bot is the most powerful on the web. Go to ITA Matrix first to get a sense of schedule and fares and then to Kayak.com to see if you can replicate the fare you found on ITA Matrix. If you can’t, go directly to the airline’s website and put in the exact dates and times to get the fare you want.
Direct Booking sites
By using the direct booking websites, you can skip the search and compare sites altogether. Direct booking sites act as virtual travel agents and they book the airline ticket for you. You can also package a flight and hotel together using these sites and save even more money. The drawback with going straight to a direct booking site is that not all the discount airlines will be listed and it’s harder to sort by schedule. The direct booking sites will show you exactly what time they think you should leave in order to get the the price the you want. So if you need to leave at 10 am and not 6pm, it will take some finagling and your fare can change depending on the time of day you want to leave.
Some of the best known and most used websites are:
Flexible? Why not Name your Own Price?
Priceline.com lets you name your own price for where you want to go and if your price is accepted you’ll go for up to 40% less than the published fares for your route. Priceline also has last minute and weekend fares which are perfect spur of the moment trips.
Cons with Priceline (and there are big ones)
- You will not earn airline miles
- Can be any airline (not just the one you regularly fly)
- Flights can be from anytime for 6am to 10pm
- Must accept up to one stop in each direction
- Once your bid is accepted, there are no refunds
If you can live with a little uncertainty then Priceline is certainly worth checking out.
If you’re a student in college or graduate school, under 26 or a teacher, you may be eligible for discounted airfares. Student airfares are ONLY for students or teachers and those under 26, they can only be purchased from student travel sites. They are often refundable and allow stopovers so they have more flexibility.
Keep in mind, the more flexible you can be in terms of travel dates (and places) the bigger the discount you can get.
STATravel.com is the old warhorse travel agent for students. Check out their deal page for upcoming travel. StudentUniverse.com is another well known site. If you just want to leave, but aren’t picky where you want to go, they’ll give you a fabulous array of options on their Fareplay page.
Going the Consolidator Route
Back before the internet, buying a ticket from a consolidator was the way to go if you wanted to get cheap tickets to Europe. Consolidator tickets are the tickets the airlines have left over and are bought in bulk from the airlines at a discount. You can usually only buy them through your travel agent. Centrav sells consolidator tickets through your travel agent or you can buy directly through Fareline International an online travel agent that specializes in selling consolidator tickets.
The drawbacks to buying tickets from consolidators are:
- Frequent flyer miles aren’t always valid for these type of tickets
- Tickets may be more restrictive in terms of changes
- You may not be able to rebook on another flight if yours is cancelled
Step Three- Find the Best Seats and Know Your Rights
The first thing you need to do once you buy your ticket is get yourself a seat. Long haul flights can be hellish if you’re trapped in a middle seat next to a crying lap baby. Before you book your seat go to Seatguru.com. This site will show you which seats have the most legroom, which are bulkhead, or on an exit row and have access to an outlet so you can plug in your laptop.
Know Your Passenger Bill of Rights
After much public outcry, Congress enacted the Passenger Bill of Rights in 2009 and then added additional rules in 2011, all of which are are designed to protect the consumer. Some of these rights include:
- Lost Bag refunds
- No more hidden fees
- If you’re bumped, you’ll be compensated
- A 24 Grace Period to make changes to your ticket without incurring fees
- You must be notified of flight changes.
Step Four - Play the Mileage Game and Win
Airlines don’t really have blackout dates for award travel anymore. They just jack up the miles you need for a specific route during peak times. For example a JFK to Budapest might cost you 55,000 miles during a non-peak time or 110,000 plus during a peak time. The sooner you book mileage award tickets the more likely you’ll be able to get to go for less miles. To figure out how many miles you will need for a particular route, go to webflyer.com and use their mileage calculator.
You can keep track of your miles at Points.com and you can trade miles with others for a processing fee. So let’s say that you’re 10,000 Delta miles short of ticket, but you have 10,000 miles in United. You post what you want to trade and if your request finds a match, you’ll get your miles (for a fee). What’s great about Points.com is that you can also trade between almost all of the loyalty programs. So if you have hotel points and you want those points transferred into airline miles, you just pay a small fee and it’s done.
Transferring Credit Card Points
If you’re a member of a credit card with a rewards program, you can transfer miles to a member airline. Often specific airlines will run promotions with the card. For example this year, Virgin Airlines had a 25% more miles promotion with American Express. So for every 50,000 points you transferred, you received 75,000 miles.
Fly One Airline
The best way to make the most of your airline miles, is to fly only one airline. By doing this, you can accumulate points more quickly for a free trip and you do not have to worry about transferring miles between different airlines and paying fees. If you decide to go this route, pick an airline that has international partners.
For example, Delta airlines has partners that cover every continent. A member of SkyMiles can use their miles to book a ‘code shared’ flight to almost any destination reachable by plane.
Get your Airline’s Credit Card
Airline credit cards are a great to accumulate miles on your favorite airline without flying because with each purchase you’ll accumulate miles and be one step closer to a free ticket.
With the Delta American Express card you get-
- The first checked bag is free,
- A $99 domestic companion ticket every year
- Double miles for tickets purchased
- Priority boarding
- 20% discount in-flight savings on internet and snacks
Here is a great link for the best airline credit cards so you can get the most reward miles for each dollar you spend.
Use Cash and Points
Most airlines are now allowing you to use Cash & Points to partially pay for your ticket. This is a great idea, if you don’t have enough miles for a free ticket, but still want to get a discounted ticket. 10,000 airline points will typically get you a $100 off.
How Far in Advance Should You Book Your Reward Ticket?
For most airline travel reward programs you can book your ticket almost a year in advance. On January 1st, people start booking their tickets for the summer. By doing this, you’ll get the best value for your miles. For example, a business class to Europe will cost you a 110,000 miles on Delta if booked in January for the summer, but if you wait too long, an economy class ticket for will cost you the same amount of miles as a business class ticket. The reason is the airlines have a limited amount of tickets in each reward level available for each flight. The cheapest award level books up quickly, so you make your award travel reservations as early as possible.
Step Five - Choose the Ticket that Works for You
Lastly, when booking a ticket don’t always pick the cheapest price. Pick the ticket that works for you. Always take these factors into consideration:
- Is the ticket non-stop?
- If the ticket has multiple stops how long are the layovers?
- What time does the flight leave? (With a 6 am flight, you’ll be getting up at 3:30 or 4 am to make your flight so it might be worth paying the extra amount, so you’re not exhausted once you arrive).
You might want to pay a little extra to get a non-stop flight with a better schedule. Traveling might not be as glamorous as it once was, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a hellish slog either.