Travel is an enlightening experience, introducing us to new cultures. It can also be an essential part of staying connected with friends and family. However, the high price of airfare is one of the greatest impediments to more frequent travel. Sometimes there isn’t much to be done, but these seven tips should help you search for a great deal.
Book Three Weeks in Advance
Prices are usually cheaper the earlier you book, but just how early is necessary? Booking too early can actually higher prices at times because the airline still has no idea how much demand there will be for a particular trip. You need to find the sweet spot.
The bad news is there is no perfect time to buy. It’s a good habit to start searching months in advance to get some sense of how much a particular trip should cost. Then use that as a benchmark to recognize a good sale. But in general, domestic flights should be booked 2-4 weeks before departure, and even earlier for holiday travel. International flights may be cheapest around 6-8 weeks before departure.
Why does advance booking help? Airlines issue multiple fares for the same flight, and cheaper fares have additional restrictions that include an advance purchase. Sometimes they’ll sell out long before then, which is common around the holidays (this is why you see warnings like “2 seats remaining”). Other times the fare just expires, and the price will go up even if the plane is completely empty.
Fly on Off-peak Dates and Times
Another good tip is to fly when others don’t want to. Business travelers like to fly on Monday, Thursday, and Friday. Leisure travelers like to fly on Friday and Sunday evening. If you’re willing to travel on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, then you could find lower prices are available. Look for redeye flights for additional savings. If you have to travel home on Sunday, leave in the morning.
Pretend to Fly to Another City
The most important rule when booking a flight is that price has everything to do with supply and demand. How much it actually costs to operate the airplan is (mostly) irrelevant. A connecting flight sometimes costs less than non-stop travel to that same connecting city.
It follows that you could save money by pretending to fly to one city even if you get off the plane and walk out the airport during your connection. This is the essence of “hidden city ticketing.” Airlines frown on the practice and could take action in extreme cases. However, a couple flights a year won’t normally be an issue.
Imagine that high demand for travel from Los Angeles to New York results in expensive fares of $500 or more, but there’s less demand for travel from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, which is only $300. If the airline lets you connect in New York (very possible, since New York is a hub) then you could get off the plane and never continue to Pittsburgh. You just saved $200 on a flight to New York. A website called Skiplagged can help automate the search if you don’t know where to start.
Be aware of the risk that weather delays or other factors could lead the airline to reroute you through a different city. You can’t check bags because they’ll go to your final destination (Pittsburgh). And it only works for one-way travel because, when you miss one segment, all subsequent travel on your itinerary will be cancelled.
Change Your Nationality
International flights can also be made cheaper using a little sleight of hand. Supply and demand sometimes results in different fares depending on where you buy the ticket because the airline believes that customers in each market have a different willingness to pay.
For example, if people from Singapore and Indonesia are both purchasing tickets on flights between those cities, the airline might charge one group a different price. In the example below, showing a flight between Singapore and Denpasar, customers purchasing tickets in Singapore get a discount, whereas Indonesians pay more; the price for Americans is about the same as in Indonesia. Note that all prices are in USD.
Singapore to Denpasar with Singapore as the purchasing city.
Singapore to Denpasar with Denpasar as the purchasing city (U.S. purchasing cities were similar in this case).
You can get around this problem by using a local travel agency to book your ticket. Flights on Chinese carriers, in particular are often less expensive when booked through Ctrip. Some global brands may have individual domains for each country where they operate: Expedia.fr, Expedia.de, and Expedia.ca are all regional variants of Expedia.com and may have different pricing. Just be aware that some credit cards impose foreign transaction fees.
Mix and Match the Best Deals
You usually don’t have to book a round-trip itinerary to get the lowest price. It could actually hurt you.
Many domestic flights are priced as one-way fares. You can book them separately or together and pay the same price either way. The airline might already be doing this and not even tell you!
This matters because sometimes different airlines have the lowest fare in each direction. Meta search engines like Kayak or Hipmunk are more likely to show you such opportunities than a specific airline’s website. However, you’ll have to book each direction separately and could face two fees if your plans change.
Many long-haul international flights are an exception to this rule. If you want to go from Los Angeles to London, it’s almost certainly cheaper to book a round-trip flight than a single one-way flight. “Throwaway” ticketing involves tossing the return portion (just don’t show up) to benefit from the cost savings.
In summary, there are many ways to arrange for cheaper flights to your destination. Many of these “tricks” simply require understanding the market forces that govern how an airline prices and markets its fares. Advanced tools like ExpertFlyer and ITA Matrix can help you get a better grasp on fare rules and pricing if you’re interested in exploring this topic further.