Unfortunately for weary travelers, there's no real shortcut to finding cheap airfare. As with any purchase, you need to shop around to get the best deal -- by trying different booking sites, altering your dates and waiting until just the right time to purchase. But if you're willing to put in a little time and effort, you could save big on your next flight.
1. Buy Early
Especially during peak travel periods, making reservations late in the game can cost you a lot of money. Airline ticket prices typically go up in the last two weeks before flying, so if you're planning ahead, try to make the call before this deadline. And if you're traveling internationally, you'll want to book even earlier -- from three to six months in advance -- for the best deals. For more on specific booking deadlines and recommendations, see Want the Lowest Fare? Here's When to Book.
That said, occasionally you can get lucky if you wait, which brings us to:
2. Buy Late
Sometimes you can buy tickets at the very last minute for a great price if the airlines have failed to fill their planes. You can find such fares at specialized sites like LastMinuteTravel.com, or sometimes on airline websites and online booking sites such as Expedia. If you can stand the suspense, and if you are flexible with your itinerary and dates, you can find fantastic money-savers to very attractive travel destinations. For more info, see Best Bets for Booking a Last-Minute Trip.
3. Shop Around
No matter how good it sounds, you should never book the first fare you see. Start your search by checking a few of the major online travel providers such as Travelocity, TripAdvisor Flights or Kayak. Airfarewatchdog is another good source of low fares. Checking these sites will give you a preliminary idea of which airlines fly your particular itinerary, what the going rate is and which restrictions might apply. Armed with this information, you can head directly to the airline website to see if the same flights are any cheaper (some airlines guarantee to offer the lowest possible fares on their own websites). While you're there, check to see if the airline is running any sales or promotions to your destination.
If you don't see anything in your preferred price range, don't be afraid to bide your time and watch the fares for a bit. Most major booking sites have alert features that will email you when your fare drops to a price you're willing to pay.
4. Know When to Buy
The hardest part of booking a flight is knowing when to stop tracking fares and make that final purchase. Kayak.com can help you reach that decision, offering fare predictions for most major cities. Just plug in your itinerary and the site will advise you either to book now or to wait, depending on whether the fare is expected to rise or drop. It also shows a fare history graph, allowing you to see whether your fare is headed in an upward or downward direction.
Keep in mind that many airlines launch fare sales on Tuesdays -- so if you decide to buy on a Monday, you may be gnashing your teeth when your destination goes on sale the next day.
5. Be Flexible
If you live close to more than one airport, check out the fares from all of the airports near you. Many online fare searching engines will ask you if you are willing to depart from or arrive in more than one city. Yes! Also, experiment with different travel dates; shifting your itinerary by a month, a week or even a few days can make a significant difference in fares. You'll usually find the lowest fares for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Just about every destination has a peak season -- and if you can fly any other time of year, you'll often pay significantly less. See The Best and Worst Days to Fly to learn more.
6. Don't Forget the Discounters
As their nickname suggests, discount airlines can save you a bundle, but they're not always easy to find. Luckily for consumers, discounters are cropping up more frequently on aggregators and booking sites (Kayak now offers fares for JetBlue and Spirit, for example) -- but there are still a few holdouts, such as Southwest and Allegiant Air, whose fares can't be found anywhere but their own websites. If you're traveling outside the U.S., don't forget to check the international discount airlines as well.
7. Use Your Frequent Flier Miles
Why pay a fare at all when you can use your frequent flier miles? Although redeeming miles has gotten more difficult in recent years, it's still a good option to consider, particularly if you're booking early; airlines designate a limited number of seats on each flight as eligible for award travel, and these seats go quickly. Some credit cards can help you build up miles more quickly; see How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card to learn more.
8. Get a Refund When Fares Go Down
If fares go down after you've purchased your ticket, ask for a refund! You may not always get one, but policies vary by airline -- and many do not publicize the fact that they will refund you the difference if prices go down. It can't hurt to ask.
Yapta.com will track flights for you after you purchase and notify you if the fares go down. Orbitz.com has a Best Price Guarantee, which entitles you to money back if you find your itinerary for less on another website.
9. Consider an Air Pass
In order to promote tourism in their countries, many national airlines offer air passes at reduced rates for tourists. If you're planning to do extensive travel in one country or region, an air pass might be your most cost-effective option. For more information, see our guide to air passes. Planning an even bigger trip? Look into around-the-world tickets and fares.
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