Becky Hart | Feb 17, 2023
How to get the best deals on flights has been mystifying travelers for years, almost since the beginning of air travel. Now, in the 2020s, as inflation and the cost of travel increase and “Will the airline get me to my destination without a cancellation?” becomes a bigger risk, we’re as determined as ever to spend less on our flights.
First, remember that cheaper is not always better (we know that makes you and your wallet sad). A little extra money can pay off big if it means you reduce stress levels by booking with a more reliable airline, having fewer layovers, or flying at a more convenient time. Second, keep in mind that the tips below are just that: tips. More often than not, they’ll work in your favor, but they aren’t hard-and-fast rules. So without further ado, here are our favorite hacks for saving money on airfare.
Being a smart traveler means doing your research, and when it comes to finding deals, you want to use a flight-tracking service to monitor price fluctuations and know what is and isn’t a good price. Popular sites like Hopper, Skyscanner, and Airfarewatchdog are a good place to start. Seven Corners writer Kelsey Nighthawk likes Google Flights. “I used this to successfully save $400 on tickets to Curaçao,” she said.
With Google Flights, simply enter your trip dates and destination. You’ll then receive periodic email alerts, and when flight prices dip, it’s time to buy! Set up your alerts at least six months before you plan to travel. We also like that you don’t have to pick a specific destination. For example, you can just select Europe, and Google serves you flight prices for several cities around the continent. Which leads us to our next tip.
Being open-minded about your destination and when you fly is a great way to find cheaper airfare. By telling Google Flights my destination was Europe rather than a specific city or even country, I found that flying into Zurich, Switzerland, would save me about $450 compared to arriving in Strasbourg, Germany. If I still need to get to Strasbourg, I can take a train — the ride is typically just over two hours — for approximately $50. That’s a total savings of about $400.
Altering your travel dates, even just a day or two, can also help you save. This is especially true if you’re flying at holiday time. Historically, the Wednesday before and the weekend after Thanksgiving have been the most popular, and therefore most expensive, days to fly. However, with more people working remotely these days, Seven Corners research found that the most popular departure date in 2021 was a full week before the holiday, with most people traveling Nov. 18 and 19. A similar trend was seen at Christmastime.
As these trends change and what was once super-predictable becomes less so, it’s even more advantageous to use comparison sites like Momondo. You’ll be able to tell if flying the week before the holiday is still the best deal or if waiting until the morning of Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve is cheaper. We know this isn’t always an option for everyone, but if you have flexibility with your schedule, it’s worth looking into. If you’re traveling in the summer, finding savings could be as simple as flying on a Thursday rather than a Friday.
Traveling during the off-season is another way to save money on travel, whether it’s airfare and other transportation like rental cars, hotels, or excursions. Kelsey priced out flights from her hometown airport of Indianapolis to Sydney, Australia, and found that flying in December was nearly twice as expensive as going in May, which is their autumn.
This is another area where the status quo is changing, however. AFAR found that while there are still fewer crowds and better deals to be found in most places during the off-season, the differences might not be as extreme as before the pandemic. Seasonal trends are changing for a number of reasons such as flexible work-from-anywhere policies that let us travel more frequently and for longer stretches of time. We’re also heeding the weather less, and instead, taking advantage of travel opportunities whenever they pop up.
The idea that you can get a good deal on a flight if you wait until right before departure is a bit of a myth, and a risky one at that. In the midst of “flightmare,” there were fewer flights available, which based on the rules of supply and demand, meant that airfares did not drop at the last minute.
Generally, the sooner you can book a flight, the better off you’ll be financially. Most airlines recommend booking domestic flights one to three months in advance. If you’re flying internationally, book two to eight months ahead. For those flying during the peak U.S. winter holiday season — Thanksgiving through New Year’s — you’ll want to purchase your flights by mid-October, after which, prices increase and are unlikely to drop again.
You will almost always find better deals out of major airports compared to smaller, regional ones. Consider flying out of a hub, even if it isn’t the closest airport to you.
Also, some airports, regardless of size, just tend to be more expensive than others. Growing up in Cincinnati, my family often found cheaper flights out of Indianapolis, Columbus, Dayton, and Louisville, all within a two-hour drive of us. As a rule, we knew the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport would be more costly, although thankfully that has changed in recent years.
A word of warning. If you’re traveling farther just to get to the airport, make sure that extra driving time (and gas) doesn’t cost more than you saved on your flight.
Budget airlines sound great on the surface until you find out that the price you’ve been quoted is for the ticket only. You might have to pay extra fees to pick your seat, check a bag, bring a carry-on, get a snack, and the list goes on. By the time you’ve done all the math, you might be paying as much or more for your “low” airfare than you would have if you’d bought a ticket on another “expensive” airline.
It’s not just the budget airlines that can surprise you, though. No matter which airline and airport you choose, factor in additional expenses:
As we said in our tips for how to leverage frequent flyer miles, if you fly enough, you can fly for free! Whether it’s a frequent flyer program through an airline or you have points from a travel credit card, take advantage of the price breaks you get for being a loyal customer. You might be able to snag a free flight or upgrade your seat without an upcharge.
When you’re trying to protect your money, spending more seems counterintuitive. However, as we’ve learned in recent months, anything can happen when you fly. To reduce the risk of losing the money you spent for your airfare and other prepaid, nonrefundable trip costs, protect your trip with travel insurance. Contact our expert team of licensed agents for more information and to find the right coverage for your budget-friendly vacation.
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Note: The prices quoted in this blog are from October 2022.
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