Trying to score a cheap flight can be a maddening. Airline pricing seems like a black box of mysteries impossible to solve. When is the best time to book your ticket? When is the best time to fly?
As an avid airline industry follower and a consumer advocate for over a decade, I’ve got some tried-and-true strategies that I have used to score cheap flights. Some are easy to implement, others may take some extra work. But by working smarter, you can land a cheap flight.
1. Pick the Cheapest Dates
Up until the early ‘90s, scoring the cheapest tickets always involved planning a Saturday night stayover. That’s because airlines would charge higher fares for business travelers.
They tend to fly during the week, but be home on the weekend. Leisure travelers typically stay away for a full weekend, and airlines would try to lure them with cheaper flights.
Nowadays, airlines price their tickets dynamically. In other words, they can very closely track supply and demand, changing pricing in a split-second based on what’s going on. Did your favorite sports team make it into the Super Bowl, for example? Before you can even turn off the TV, airfares to get to the big game have already increased.
So how do you get around this dynamic pricing? Look for days that have lower travel demand. Typically, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturdays are the cheapest days to fly. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sundays are often priced higher. The price follows demand. You can test out this theory by choosing a “7 day” or flexible date view in the price search engine.
Time of the day matters, too. Often, if you’re willing to take a red eye, or the first or last flight of the day, you can get a better price.
2. Sign up for Email Newsletters and Sale Alerts
There are three types of email communications to be aware of when it comes to cheap airfare: notifications from airlines, from low-fare information aggregators, and from online travel agents. You should be on the mailing lists for all three.
The first place to find a cheap flight is in an airline’s email newsletter or sales alerts. By keeping an eye on your inbox, you’ll be among the first to learn about planned sales, straight from the source. Examples include Alaska Airlines’ Black Friday sale and Delta’s seasonal, route-specific deals, which come in the off-season.
But there’s a way to find out about sales even earlier than in airline notifications. Airlines load sale fares into their reservation system hours before their email marketing team can send out email notifications. The time gap means those who have access to or who are savvy enough to notice fare drops in airline reservation systems can often have the upper hand.
There are many airfare information aggregators out there who do this searching for you. Two of the most popular are Scott’s Cheap Flights and The Flight Deal. So, it makes sense to sign up for their free newsletters.
Finally, online travel agents (like Expedia and Orbitz, also known as OTAs) also send out emails about deals. If you prefer to buy your airfare, hotel and car together, these OTAs can provide discounts on your overall travel package. OTAs include promotional discount codes within many of their promotional emails..
If you really want to make the most of these notifications, you can analyze them to create a price trend in Excel or on paper. The work can be cumbersome, but understanding the cyclical nature of airfare pricing on a destination you want to go to can help you buy tickets at the lowest price.
Either way, this is the simplest step you can take to find cheap airfares. Just sign up and let the deals roll into your inbox.
3. Listen to the Experts
There are tons of consumer and travel experts who spend their days keeping track of travel deals. Some of them you see on TV all the time. Others write columns in newspapers or are avid travel bloggers.
Whether you’re looking for cheap airfare, hotels or rental cars, these advocates are on the ball when it comes to tracking deals. Even better, airlines may tip them off to sales in advance.
You can find these experts in the newspaper, on their blogs or on social media. Follow a few to start. Then keep track of their accuracy and coverage areas before settling on your favorite expert (or two).
4. Automate Price Monitoring
Instead of checking the airlines’ websites to see if prices drop, many travel search engines offer price monitoring.
One of the most well known in this category is Google Flights. Google Flights is a great tool that allows you to search through most of the available seats on the market. In addition, you can use it to track pricing.
Within every search result is a set of tools that you can use to judge whether the price is reasonable. You can look at different dates, a price graph, or even neighboring airports to judge price competitiveness.
Even better, you can immediately toggle a switch to ask the tool to monitor the same trip for a lower price. Google will continually look for price drops, plot the change on a graph, and send you emails to let you know about the price changes.
Another great tool to use is Kayak’s “Our Advice” box. When you search for a flight on Kayak, Kayak provides an immediate recommendation on the results page saying whether you should buy the ticket right now or wait for the price to drop, based on Kayak’s analysis of historical pricing.
You can also track price changes and receive emails alerts from Kayak, just as you can in Google Flights.
If you’re more app oriented, there are a number of travel booking apps that will help you accomplish the same thing. Consider Hopper, Skyscanner and Hipmunk.
5. Consider Nearby Airports
If you’re lucky enough to live in a metropolitan area with two or three airports close together, you can take advantage of neighboring airports.
For example, in New York City, you can fly in and out of JFK, LaGuardia or Newark Liberty. In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can pick from airports in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. These are just a couple of examples.
Driving a few miles out of your way could score you a significantly cheaper ticket.
6. Peruse the Forums
Online travel forums such as FlyerTalk are where avid travelers hang out. As such, they’re a great place to find advice on cheap airfares — in particular, mistake fares and deep discount fares.
Here’s what you need to know about mistake fares: An airline’s revenue management team sets fares and loads them into the reservation system. Since this is sometimes a manual process, mistakes can easily be made.
Imagine what a deal you would snag if an airline employee forgets to type a zero and puts in a fare of $100 instead of $1,000. Travel forums are full of price hounds that keep up on this information
You’re probably thinking that mistake fares are too good to be true. Yes, they can be. There are recent examples of airlines cancelling mistake fare tickets and issuing refunds. If that’s the case, you’re out of luck.
A better type of fare to stumble into is a deep discount fare during the off-season. You might think these sorts of fares would be to tropical destinations during monsoon season, blistering cold cities in the dead of winter, and other undesirable destinations.
In fact, many of these deep discount fares occur right at the beginning or end of the busy season. When airlines are striving to keep seats filled, they may run a sale to bridge the busy and shoulder seasons. Forum members are often the first to spot these fares.
7. Buy at the Right Time in Advance
One of the most definitive studies on when to book is an airfare study from Cheapoair.com.
It found that your best time to book a plane ticket could range from 47 to 90 days from departure, depending on the season when you’re flying and your destination. Cheapoair conducts this study annually, so check it every once in a while to get the latest information.
8. Use Frequent Flyer Miles
Miles and points abound. You’ll need to sign up for airline frequent flyer programs (for free), but you can also earn miles through hotel loyalty programs and through credit cards.
Credit card sign-up bonuses alone can net you tens of thousands of miles. But be sure to only charge what you can pay off immediately. Travel credit cards have higher-than-average interest rates, so if you run a balance on a regular basis you can easily pay more than the points bonuses are worth.
9. Skimp On Expectations and Fly a Budget Airline
If you’re going on a short jaunt or don’t need to pack much for your trip, a budget airline may be your best bet. In the U.S., Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant are known as Ultra Low Cost Carriers, or ULCC’s. Their no-frills model helps you get where you’re going for cheap on a bare bones flight.
Many of these flights go to smaller, lower demand airports or have very thin frequencies, meaning your choice of flights (and options if you miss your flight) are limited.
And beware that everything you might expect to get for free on a regular airline comes with a fee on a ULCC. That includes not only checked baggage, but also carry-on luggage, seat assignments and even a boarding pass print-out. Add too many for-fee services and you’ll erase any price savings you’ve gotten by flying a ULCC.
But, if you can keep the add-ons to a minimum and keep your expectations in check, flying a ULCC could be a big money saver.
10. Use the Best Flight Search Engines
You would think that every search engine would fight to display the lowest price. But that’s not the case. Each OTA and search engine has a different commission and fee structure. In some cases, they pass some of their costs along to you, but in others they don’t.
The search engine with the best airfare for a particular flight will be your airline’s website. It shows the best available pricing data.
But if you’re looking for the best overall data (i.e. price and schedules across all available airlines), you’ll want to look at aggregate flight search engines. These are sites like Kayak and Skyscanner. They take all available pricing and scheduling data and show you what’s available in the entire marketplace.
However, there are some countries, routes, and airlines around the world that do things differently. For example, in Asia, many folks still rely on Travel Agents (TAs). Airlines give TAs more sales incentives, such as exclusive fares and kickbacks, to push tickets. But that is a pretty rare exception.
If you’re planning an international trip, do some research to see what the preferred method of booking airline tickets is in that country.
One Myth About Finding Cheap Flights: Incognito Browser Mode
One of the most shared tips about finding cheap airfares is to use your browser’s incognito mode to search for airfare. That opens a private window where the airline can’t access your cookies to see what you searched for previously. The myth holds that if the airlines know you’ve been checking on prices for a particular flight, they’ll know you’re more interested and will therefore raise prices for you.
This is absolutely baloney. There has been no definitive data to prove that airlines are using your airfare search data to jack up your airfares.
What’s more likely is that while you’re futzing around with incognito mode, someone else has bought a cheap ticket for the same flight or one that involves a connection using your flight. So, delaying your purchase could actually cost you more.
The bottom line is, there are many ways to successfully score a cheap airline ticket. But beware of bad advice along the way.
Have you scored a great airfare deal using one of these tips?