Buying plane tickets these days is like placing a bet. You've been watching for weeks, it's not going to go any lower you just feel it now's the time: Click it now! Click it now!
Exciting, perhaps, but for many people a stressful endeavor, especially when that low-low price was apparently valid for 12 seconds on Tuesday at 9:02. It can seem hopeless, predicting the rise and fall of airfares, and even for the "experts" it often is -- but there are ways to at least increase the odds of getting a really good deal [source: Hobica].
A new art form has sprung from the annoying inconsistency of ticket pricing, and mastering it can potentially save fliers hundreds, if not thousands, on airfare. The general idea is to make the chaos work for you and avoid that last-minute, desperation purchase that almost always costs you more [source: Hobica].
For most travelers, getting the lowest possible price takes some knowledge, effort and foresight -- and that can take some time.
It goes without saying, but here it is nonetheless: If you're traveling tomorrow and you start looking today, your chances of finding a great deal decrease rather dramatically.
The earlier you start looking, the better. Most airlines recommend buying tickets at least two weeks in advance to get their lowest fares, and some extend that to three weeks [source: Hobica]. Airlines increase prices as the travel date nears, reportedly to take advantage of typically short-notice, inflexible business-related travel [source: Kayak].
It's possible to find last-minute deals, notably through "name your own price" Web sites, but many travelers are uncomfortable shopping that way because you don't know exactly what you're buying until after you buy it. (Yikes.)
So, ideally, you'll start looking with weeks to spare. But that's a minimum. To pay rock-bottom prices, it's best to start checking fares months in advance.
And not just once a week.
Check Often. Really Often.
It can seem pretty random, but there are at least a couple of guidelines airlines have to follow regarding price changes, thanks to the Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO). During the week, they can update their domestic fares up to four times a day; during the weekend, they can update them once a day [source: ATPCO]. International fares can be changed more often, but typically aren't [source: Hobica].
Of course, you don't know exactly when those changes are going to happen, and you might wake up on Tuesday to find the flight you want is $100 less than it was when you went to sleep on Monday night, and by lunch it's $150 more.
So check often -- at least every day, preferably several times a day, and, absurdly but ideally, every hour.
Of course, doing a route search every hour might be impossible (and your supervisor may strongly object). Luckily, there is an easier way to go.
Most travel-booking Web sites let you to set up alerts to track airfare automatically. These come in a number of different forms, but all of them basically mean the Web site does the searching for you.
Some sites let you set alerts for specific routes (say, New York to Los Angeles). Others are set up to let you track specific flights. The approach may be to set a particular price you want to pay, and when the route or flight drops to (or below) that number, you receive an e-mail; you might also arrange to be notified when the price of a route or flight decreases at all (from the time you set up the alert).
Because fares change so often, it's important to book quickly when an alert arrives if you like the price. If you wait, the fare could be a lot higher by the time you click through.
Another thing to keep in mind: There are factors that almost invariably (and unchangingly) affect the price of any route you want to travel.
Be Willing to Connect
It's an almost universal truth in air travel: When getting from Point A to Point B, stopping at Point C will lower the price, even if Point C is 600 miles out of your way.
If you don't really mind connecting, and especially if you won't be losing half your vacation time to the layover, strongly consider it. You can save a lot of money by giving up the convenience of the non-stop.
And when you know you'll be making stops, particularly international ones, always take at least two search approaches: First, search the entire route on a couple of sites, and see what they quote you for, say L.A. to Paris with a connection in New York; then search for flights from L.A. to New York and from New York to Paris. You might find that combining two separate itineraries of your choosing costs less than booking the entire route [source: Hobica].
Up next, another point to consider in your search, especially if you live in a major city.
Consider Other Airports
Most travelers are conditioned to limit their searches to the nearest major, international airport. There are, however, smaller airports that may be a pretty short drive from home and a less-expensive starting point.
Airports charge airlines usage fees, and smaller airports often charge smaller fees [source: Hobica]. In many cases, that means smaller ticket prices, too. Most travel-booking sites have an option to include these other, nearby airports in your search, and they'll show you flights from both your main choice and any alternative ones.
Of course, even if it costs less to start and end at the "nearby" airport, driving time is key. You don't want to end up cancelling out any savings with the cost of gas, airport parking and your precious time.
Some other "alternates" can save you money, too.
Try Off-days and Off-hours
Yes, you want to fly out on a Friday, back on a Sunday, and depart at a nice, sleepy 1 p.m. This is perfect. And typically the most expensive way to fly.
It depends a lot on the route, but in general, the cheapest days to fly are Tuesday and Wednesday; Mondays and Saturdays can mean lower prices, too [source: Hobica]. It's sometimes a business versus pleasure thing: Airlines might charge higher fares on Mondays and Thursdays, especially for early-morning and late-night flights, for popular business-travel routes. For common vacation destinations, Fridays and Sundays at more-leisurely hours will typically be the pricier options [source: Kayak].
You don't need to guess here: Most booking sites will show you fares for several days on either end of your selected start date, and for different departure times. In a nutshell, though, if you're searching for fares to Honolulu, Tuesday and Wednesday are safe bets for starting out, and Tuesday or Wednesday at 6 a.m. might save you big.
It's pretty simple: Lower demand means lower prices. There are some discrepancies, however, that fly a bit more under the radar.
At first glance, travel booking sites that search multiple airlines can look pretty much the same; while they do often vary in the specific features they offer, particularly in flexible-search options, they really are a lot alike. This may lead one to assume they offer the same prices on the same flights. This is a mistake.
Each of these sites has its own deal with the airlines they search, so prices can vary [source: Airfare Watchdog]. Your best bet is to search them all -- or at least three or four.
Know the sites' policies, too: While many travel sites have eliminated booking fees, some do still charge, typically about 10 bucks. (While you're at it, you may also want to check out the airlines' policies for bag-check fees, carry-on fees, seat-selection fees, change fees and charges for onboard snacks.)
Once you've searched the booking sites, make another stop before you buy.
Go to the Source
Multi-airline booking sites tend to bill themselves as the be-all end-all in low fares. And sure, you may find a great deal there. But in reality, you're likely to find an even better deal if you go to the source.
Before you purchase a trip on a booking site, check the prices for the flights you want on the airline's own Web site. Eliminating the go-between saves the airline money, so you can often save, too -- and sometimes save hundreds if the airline is running a promo [sources: Rosenbloom, Airfare Watchdog].
Also noteworthy is what might be missing from those go-between sites: smaller, low-cost airlines. Southwest, for instance, won't come up anywhere except on the Southwest Web site, and Allegiant is often absent from multi-airline search sites, too [source: Airfare Watchdog].
Eliminating the middleman isn't the only motive behind the lower fares, though. Airlines love loyalty, and you can easily take advantage of this.
Sign Up for E-mails
It may be tough to hear, but it's important: Register to receive newsletters and weekly deals, and not just from one airline.
Many of us have sworn off such things entirely, having had our e-mail address sold to spammers one too many times. But if you really want the lowest possible fare, this sign-up borders on critical.
Airlines want you to want them, and only them, and in exchange for your expression of even mild interest they'll send you, free of charge, ridiculous promos like 20 percent off every flight and buy-one/get-one tickets. And you'll fairly regularly see more modest deals like $30 off your trip, or temporary, seasonal price reductions that you'll only hear about if you're on their mailing lists [source: Airfare Watchdog].
If you want to limit your registrations, just sign up for the airlines with which you have a frequent-flier account, since you probably end up flying those more often anyway.
And speaking of those miles: If you're booking a flight from, say, Philly to Chicago, don't use them unless you have to. They can be put to better use toward something that gets you across the country or abroad [source: Hobica].
And finally, an imperfect, sometimes misleading policy that gets lots of flack but still can be extremely beneficial under the certain circumstances.
Get the "Guarantee"
It's the bane of the bargain hunter. You buy a trip for $500, and it's a good deal. You're fine with it. Curiosity prompts a search a day or two later, and the exact same trip is selling for $395.
This rather frequent occurrence has apparently ticked off enough travelers that now, many booking sites and airlines offer to refund the difference if the price of your trip decreases after you buy it -- even, sometimes, if the lower price is offered by a different site.
Sometimes. It turns out these "refunds" are almost always (or always-always) in the form of a credit for future travel. Sites that sell both air and hotel may even limit the voucher to a hotel purchase even if what you purchased was a flight. These vouchers may expire; they may come with a re-booking fee; they may require such an exact match between itineraries and purchase conditions that a reasonable person would never see a difference between the two trips [source: Airfare Watchdog].
In short, read the fine print. Twice.
Still, despite its shortcomings, for some people a price guarantee can be a very valuable thing. For instance, if you almost always fly a particular airline, and you fly several times a year, then the voucher might as well be an actual refund. You could end up paying next to nothing on top of that voucher for a future flight.
It's also, and this shouldn't be discounted, a little extra peace of mind for people who book, say, six months in advance, since it's practically guaranteed the price will decrease at least once or twice before you fly.
All of this may sound trying, and it can be, especially if finding the hands-down best deal ever isn't on your list of pastimes. But guess what: Live, breathing travel agents still exist, and their whole job is to book you the travel you want at the price you want to pay. You'll pay a fee for the service, but a travel agent can have insider connections resulting in discounts you wouldn't otherwise find. You could still end up paying less in the end.
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Author's Note: 10 Tips for Finding the Lowest Airfares
Views among experts vary on the accuracy of fare predictions, but they vary between "they're sometimes right" and "please, give me a break." I didn't come across anyone who put a whole lot of stock in them beyond what any non-expert would know: You'll pay more to get to Miami in December than in August, and more to fly absolutely anywhere on Dec. 23 than, well, any other time.
It seems, both from delving into forums and from some anecdotal evidence (my cousin scoring tickets from New York to Ft. Lauderdale on two days' notice in December for 87 bucks, total) that a lot of the game is luck. That's not to say these tips won't work, but only that obsessing about it might be a waste of time.
- "Best Price Guarantee." Expedia. (Jan. 21,2013) http://www.expedia.com/p/info-other/guarantees.htm
- "Find low fares." AirTran. (Jan. 19, 2013) http://www.airtran.com/low-fares/find_low_fares.aspx
- Hobica, George. "11 top tips for buying airfares." MSNBC. Aug. 18, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2013) http://www.today.com/id/32363642/ns/today-travel/t/top-tips-buying-airfares/#.URAIBndhxkY
- Hobica, George. "Airfare 101: How to find the best airline deals." USA Today. March 22, 2011. (Jan. 19, 2013) http://travel.usatoday.com/experts/hobica/story/2011/03/Airfare-101-How-to-find-the-best-airline-deals/45148514/1
- "How does Orbitz Price Assurance work?" Orbitz. (Jan. 21, 2013) https://faq.orbitz.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/7551/~/how-does-orbitz-price-assurance-work%3F
- "Low Fare Tips." Kayak. (Jan. 19, 2013) http://www.kayak.com/help/lowfares
- Rosenbloom, Stephanie. "3 Myths About Booking From the Source." The New York Times. Sept. 26, 2012. (Jan. 25, 2013) http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/travel/3-myths-about-booking-travel-from-the-source.html?_r=0
- "Top ten tips for finding low airfares." Airfare Watchdog. (Jan. 19, 2013) http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/pages/3799654/top-ten-tips-for-finding-low-airfares/