Are you on the lookout for cheap airline tickets? You've come to the right place. Travel is expensive, no matter your mode of choice, but airfare is notoriously a ticket of variables, with no two people ever seeming to pay the same amount. Frequent fliers learn all the tricks for taking to the skies on a dime, but for many of the rest of us, the mere prospect of leaving terra firma is just the start of our confusion.
The ticket to your destination is just the start of it, with merchants, agencies, websites and comparison services all screaming for your dollars with promised deals and warnings about competitors. Then, you start slogging through the fees: ticketing fees, ticket change fees, reservation-by-anything fee as well as the preferred seating fee. Who knew the airline would charge an extra $150 for a window or an aisle seat? You don't even want to think about baggage. Is it really $200 for a 100-pound bag, and how do you know how much it weighs in advance?
Even once you're seated on the plane, ready for takeoff, you study your fellow travelers, wondering what they paid. Who helped them find the best deal? You wish you had the luxury of a corporate travel agency. Then, it could be someone else's problem.
Here at GET.com, we feel your angst and doubt, but we also know that sometimes, you need to stretch your wings and fly. In this GET.com's Guide to Cheap Air Tickets, we'll show you how you can get your hands on cheap airfares to your favorite destination.
How To Get Cheap Airfares:
Get Your Timing Right
With the costs of fuel, flight crew, ground crew, insurance, aircraft maintenance, airport fees, administration and maybe a soda or two, airlines are trying to make every flight count. They need to fill seats to cover expenses. Barring the exceptions during the Thanksgiving pilgrimage, each scheduled flight is in fact a gamble for them and you. How quickly will each plane reach capacity?
Do Travel Days Matter?
Just as you can bet your favorite restaurant will be hopping at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, airlines know that business travelers are going to fill their planes on Mondays. They know, too, that on Friday, those corporate professionals will want to fly away home even as leisure travelers head for their weekend destination getaways. Some days, an airport is a madhouse. On others, it can be a tomb. Prices are often kinder when you travel apart from the herd.
Some experts argue that Tuesday is the day to travel while others vow their best finds have been for a Wednesday departure. This is what we found when we put in departure and return dates on a round-trip ticket from Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Boston's Logan International:
- If we departed on a Wednesday and returned home on Saturday, American Airlines' cheapest flight was about $295 – $256 for the ticket and $39 in tax.
- If we departed on a Friday and returned home on Monday, our cheapest American Airlines flight was $323 – $276 plus $47 in tax.
As we shifted the dates, we consistently got varying prices, with flights at more desirable times nudging prices upward. A pleasant 9 a.m. flight could cost $50 more than the one around 11 a.m., the start of lunchtime. If you can survive the first-flight-of-the-day red-eye, that's often your cheapest bet, and you'll have plenty of space on the shuttle.
If you don't believe just how much of a difference it can make, we checked flights on Delta's website, which gave us prices for economy class, main cabin and first class. If you wanted to travel in the main cabin for the 7:25 a.m. flight, you would pay $590 – $60 more than it would have cost you to travel first class at 8:45 a.m. The difference was 1 hour and 20 minutes. Playing with dates and times can save you money and even improve your seating options, even when you're booking only days in advance.
Do Booking Deadlines Or Days Matter?
Although standard wisdom has long advised booking flights about 6 weeks in advance, Expedia and the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) examined this issue and more in their report, "Preparing for Takeoff: Air Travel Trends 2015." They found that:
- Americans typically buy domestic flight tickets 32 days in advance, but tickets were actually cheapest 57 days in advance; that's 8 weeks and a day. The average cost for all tickets purchased zero to 300 days in advance was $495. At 300 days out, cost was about $550 but slowly decreased to the 57-day mark before climbing rapidly. If you purchased 57 days in advance, average cost was only $401.
- Internationally, we could be saving even more. Americans typically buy international flight tickets 57 days in advance, but flights are actually cheapest when purchased 171 days in advance – that's 5 months plus 3 weeks! The average cost for all international tickets purchased zero to 300 days in advance was $1,368. The decrease and ensuing escalation curve were quite different from those illustrating domestic flights, however. At 300 days out, fares were a bit over $1,100 on average and declined slightly to the 171-day low point of $1,004. By 75 days in advance, fares were back up to $1,100. At 50 days, they were $1,200. By 25 days in advance, they rose to $1,500, continuing to shoot up to $1,800 or more a few days before the flight.
Some airline bookies even narrow the odds of finding the ultimate cheap flight by day of the week and time of day. Of course, the airlines know that we anticipate the latest trend and do their best to keep us off balance. That said, some trends are worth watching:
- Airlines want to make the most of flights to areas that are both business and pleasure destinations. A study that Texas A&M University researchers published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization found that fares purchased on Saturday and Sunday for mixed destinations were on average 5 percent lower than those purchased on weekdays. Maybe the airlines know that we have more time to search for those deals on the weekend.
- In their report, however, Expedia and ARC found that Tuesday is still the best day of the week to find low fares when you book you air travel at least 3 weeks ahead of the flight."
If you have the luxury of time, especially if you have a carrier you prefer, start checking and watching as soon as you know you'll be taking to the air. Studies also note that some destinations have significantly greater rate variance than others. You need to get a sense of how prices trend to know whether you're getting or abetting a steal.
Use Comparison Sites Smartly
We see them advertise and hear them promise the absolute best deal. Look for a flight, and your search results will be full of online travel sites as well as travel meta search sites; the airlines all have their own sites, too. No doubt you're wondering what exactly you're actually seeing. Basically, the difference as AirfareWatchdog explains it is:
- an online travel agency will usually have a toll-free number with qualified travel agents on call who can help you book or re-book a flight, and avoid pitfalls. Examples of online travel agencies include Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.
- Meta search sites are not set up to deal with you directly because they don't sell tickets, but rather direct you to online travel agencies or airlines to book once you've chosen a flight. Popular meta search sites are Kayak, Mobissimo, Momondo, Hipmunk, TripAdvisor and Google Flights.
Even if you don't actually book through them, these sites can do a ton of the legwork for you. While you would have to search each airline's site and experiment with dates and times, you can use comparison sites' online tools. Enter your preferences, and these travel engines will make multiple packages for you. They can play with options, using one carrier for your outgoing flight and another for your return trip or breaking the trip into cost-cutting legs. You usually can save potential trips and date ranges online, and if new airline postings offer a better deal, sites will email you with price alerts. If a reference point helps, Kayak's advice line in your screen's upper left corner makes recommendations. AirfareWatchdog finds deals and promises that humans actually vet them to ensure hidden or associated costs like baggage fees won't ding your seeming bargain.
Don't be surprised when competitor sites automatically pop up with comparable offers; if your computer slows, they're probably in the background. Just be aware that not all carriers participate in online comparison sites; many of your favorite budget carriers may be conspicuously absent. Too, prices may be stripped of fees that get added back in through the process. While one deal may appear to be the best one, other associated costs or fees can make it the worst. Be sure to check on your airline's site. You may be able to get an even better deal without a merchant in the middle.
Check Budget Airlines For Reference
Sometimes a budget airline not listed on travel sites has lower prices or can at least offer perspective on what a flight to your destination might cost. They may have fewer hubs, but they may also have better prices thanks to limited focus. They don't always use the largest airport in a metropolitan area, either; but that has its upsides (cheaper parking, less waiting, faster boarding), and if the areas they serve match where you're going, they may be your bargain answer. If you're not sure whether budget carriers serve your destinations, check their online route maps:
- JetBlue serves many of the major U.S. cities, particularly on the East Coast. It also has numerous vacation destinations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
- Allegiant Air's focus is transporting leisure travelers to warm vacation destinations like Punta Gorda, Tampa Bay, Las Vegas, Orlando, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
- Frontier serves most major U.S. cities as well as vacation spots in Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
- Southwest serves most major U.S. cities as well as a few in Central America and Puerto Rico. - Spirit serves the largest U.S. cities, with numerous destinations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
- Sun Country serves nearly 20 major U.S. cities as well as destinations in Central America and the Caribbean.
- Dynamic Airways flies from airports in Florida, New York, Guyana, Hong Kong, Palau, and Venezuela. It also carries out flights between Changsha (China) to Los Angeles via Anchorage.
If you're traveling even further abroad, you may want to check international budget airlines. Some of the Meta search travel sites do include a number of them. Ones worth checking include DoHop, SkyScanner, Wegolo and WhichBudget. When in doubt, search out budget carriers by geographic area, and then check their individual sites.
Use Loyalty Programs And Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Even if you're not dropping off and picking up every week or so, you can take advantage of airlines' incentive programs throughout the entire year. You can even earn miles towards travel while your feet are planted firmly on the ground. All the airlines have websites, with newsletters highlighting their best bargains. If nothing else, sign up for those, but check out their frequent flyer programs, too. One size rarely fits all, and the airlines know it. Even within one program, many levels and options provide choices you may not have known you had.
Most airlines combine frequent flyer programs with partner incentives and their own airline credit cards. You have to maintain a degree of brand loyalty, but in return, you get rewards points. Squirrel the points away, and when you have enough, you can convert them into discounted or even free tickets. If you have surplus, you might be able to upgrade or opt for a few travel amenities like free baggage or entry to an airline lounge where you can relax between legs of your adventure. Some things to consider when you're looking for your perfect loyalty program and airline credit card include:
- Does a credit card entitle you to free checked baggage? Most airline branded credit cards let you get at least 1 piece of checked luggage free. Some airlines give you free checked baggage for yourself and up to 4 travel companions traveling with you, as long as you make the booking for all of them. In most cases you will have to use the airline card to pay for your bookings in order to get the free checked baggage benefit.
- Does the credit card allow give you actual frequent flyer miles or points that can be transferred to frequent flyer programs? Most airline branded credit cards give you actual frequent flyer miles that post straight to your linked frequent flyer account, and are a good choice if you always use the same airline. Other cards let you transfer your rewards to a number of frequent flyer programs, so you have more flexibility because you can transfer you miles to different frequent travel programs. Some good travel credit cards do not give you actual frequent flyer miles, but rather "miles" that are really more like cash back which you can redeem towards any travel purchases you make. These cards are the most flexible, as you can redeem your rewards towards all or part of almost any travel expense (flights, hotels, vacation packages, auto rentals, tours, and sometimes even gas), but the downside is that the "miles" you earn aren't usually worth as much in airfare as actual frequent flyer miles. Here you can see how much your airline miles are worth.
- How compatible are the airline's destinations with your plans? Some carriers have limited routes or restrict destinations. If you are going to get an airline branded card make sure that the airline flies to all the destinations you can picture yourself traveling to.
- What are the expiration limits for your benefits? If the program requires you to use miles within 2 years, will you be able to accrue miles quickly enough to use them?
- Can more than one person accumulate or use miles? Some travel credit cards reward you with miles for all purchases made with additional cards for authorized users, as well as your own card. That means purchases made by your spouse, for example, can help add miles to the kitty. It's also important to check whether the miles you earn can be redeemed towards an flights you book (even for other people) or if you can only redeem them for your own travel. Alternatively, some credit cards let you transfer rewards to someone else who uses the same frequent flyer or rewards program, so that they can use them to get a flight.
- Does the card have an annual fee? A high annual fee can negate the savings you get by earning miles, depending on how much you spend. However, you should also consider the savings you get through card benefits like free checked baggage, complimentary travel insurance, discounts on in-flight food and beverages and other perks. If an airline charges $50 per piece of checked baggage, and you get free checked baggage for your family of 4, the $200 you save would make the $100 annual fee you pay for your credit card more than worth it.
- What do you have to do to get the bonus offer? Large bonus offers may require that you make several thousand dollars in purchases using your card within your first 3 months as a cardholder. Some cards let you earn a neat chunk of bonus miles every year, but only if you use your card to make a certain amount of purchases (often $10,000 spending per year for the good bonus offers). These bonus offers are meant to give you an incentive to use your card to pay for as many of your purchases as possible, and are one of the best ways to get more flights for less. Look for bonus offers that you can realistically get.
- What is the interest rate? Many airline branded credit cards have a relatively high APR. If you can't pay off balances in full every month, you may end up actually paying more in interest than what you are saving through the miles you earn. If you do make your payments in full by the due date each month, this won't be an issue.
- Can you transfer miles among partner programs? Some frequent flyer programs have partnerships with other frequent travel programs, which gives you more flexibility in the way you can redeem your miles. For example, you can earn and use United's MileagePlus miles on more than 35 Star Alliance airlines worldwide (Lufthansa, Swiss, Air Canada, Thai and many more). The most flexible option are credit cards which let you earn rewards that you can then transfer to many frequent travel programs, which in turn let you redeem your miles or points with their own partner airlines, hotels and car rental companies.
- Does the credit card have a tier system for redeeming rewards? Some travel cards use a tier system when you redeem your rewards for travel. This can help you get more value for your miles, but you could also get the short end of the stick if your flight falls short of the next tier level. The FlexPerks℠ program from U.S. Bank is a good example of a travel rewards program that uses tiers.
- What purchases qualify and at what rate? Most travel credit cards offer a base amount of miles or points for each $1 of purchases you charge to the card. But if you want to earn miles fast you should look for cards that offer bonus points for purchases which you spend a lot of money on. Most airline branded cards offer high points per dollar for purchases made directly with the airline. But unless you fly a lot, you will most likely spend more on things like restaurant dining, gas and entertainment. So look for cards that let you earn bonus points in categories that work for you.
- How flexible are redemption options? Can you apply rewards only to flights, or can you use them for hotel stays, cash back, car rentals or even merchant discounts?
- Will restrictions interfere with being able to use the points you earn? Some frequent flyer programs or credit card rewards programs impose black-out dates when you cannot fly using your miles. These are usually the busy periods like holidays, because they want to save their seats for cash customers. Unfortunately, those are often the times when you will most likely want to travel. Unless you love flying off-season, always use a credit card that lets you redeem for travel with no black-out dates.
- Does a frequent flyer program have an online shopping portal which lets you earn miles when you buy stuff? Aside from flying regularly, one of the easiest ways to earn a lot of miles is by using online shopping malls. These portals usually just redirect you to other online stores (mostly big-name stores), but shopping through the portal lets you earn bonus miles on your purchases. Examples of online shopping malls run by frequent flyer programs include MileagePlus Shopping from United, the AAdvantage eShopping site from American Airlines, and Rapid Rewards Shopping from Southwest. Depending which store you shop at, you can earn up to 10 miles per $1 on your shopping at some portals.
- Does the card charge foreign transaction fees? If you plan to use your airline credit card to pay for purchases when you travel, you should consider whether you will have to pay a foreign transaction fee when you make payments in a foreign currency. This fee is usually 3% of each transaction, so a credit card with no foreign transaction fee can save you a lot of money.
- Do you get airline credit? Some more high-end credit cards cover a certain part of your airline expenses every year, usually by reimbursing you with a statement credit. Some cards only offer this credit towards incidental airline fees like checked bags, food and beverages, in-flight internet and ob-board entertainment. But there are some cards that let you use your credit towards the cost of airline tickets as well.
As with anything, some programs go above and beyond in keeping a wide range of customers happy while others are tailored to a particular audience. Travel preferences and needs are as varied as the people who jet the globe. In fact, few venues attract such populations of distinctly disparate individuals as airports do. However, three pieces of advice are good, no matter who or where you are. Check early. Check everywhere. Check repeatedly – and try to book the deal you find on a Tuesday that's 57 or 171 days in advance.
Additional Resources At GET.com:
Adam Luehrs is a contributing writer at GET.com based in California. He likes traveling to new and exciting destinations, preferably on his credit card company's dime. When not on the road, Adam enjoys hiking around the mountains of San Diego, trying out new food and reading history books. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.Editorial Disclosure: Any personal views and opinions expressed by the author in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of GET.com. The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the companies mentioned, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.