How to Save Money on Airfare
First, the bad news. After more than a year of falling ticket prices, the cost of flying is now rising. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average domestic airfare jumped 4.7 percent in the first quarter of 2010 compared with the same period last year.
Now the good news. You can do something about it.
First, understand that the rules around when and where to buy tickets are constantly in flux—airfare offers change up to three times each day during the week. Airlines aren’t just changing the fares but also the number of seats that are available at the lowest fare. There might be one seat today at the lowest price and a dozen tomorrow morning. Or vice versa. You need to search hard, find the fare, and lock it down immediately.
In other words, timing is everything when it comes to saving money on airfare. That’s true for when you buy, but also for when you decide to travel. To find the lowest fare, flexibility is key. If you have wiggle room built into your schedule, you can sometimes save hundreds by adjusting your travel dates, often by just one or two days. (And those who are very flexible might try an auction site like Hotwire or Priceline.)
Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t work very well during the busy holiday season when seats are at a premium. In fact, it’s difficult to find any low prices when the holiday season approaches. Airlines traditionally raise their fares for travel during peak holiday periods and for last-minute travel, and they start planning early. Don’t expect to use your miles to save money, either. During the holiday season, there’s little—if any—chance of getting a seat using a “restricted mile award.” You’ll have to dig deep into your account for one of those “anytime mileage awards.”
Our most important tip? Take charge and shop around. Don’t assume that all online travel agencies have the same fares, or that the airline’s own website has the highest fares. And don’t overlook air/hotel packages; the total package price, including the hotel, can be less than the airfare alone. —Everett Potter
With reporting by Jennifer Coogan, Jennifer Flowers, and Nick Teddy
Think About Timing
For less competitive routes, try to buy tickets at least 21 days in advance to get the best price. For high-traffic routes, consult bing.com’s Airfare Predictor, which will advise whether you should snap up that ticket or wait.
Consider One-Way Tickets
If your plans don’t permit a Saturday stay over, try buying two one-way tickets from a low-cost carrier like Southwest or JetBlue, which don’t require round-trip purchases to access the lowest prices.
Sometimes the lowest fares are on an airline’s own website; sometimes they’re available through search engines, such as Kayak or Expedia, which locate fares from a combination of carriers.
Check for Alternate Airports
In some areas, a discount airline may not have any routes to the major airport, so look for a smaller one in the area (for example, San Jose instead of San Francisco, or Providence, RI, instead of Boston).
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Consider a Connecting Flight
As a rule of thumb, connecting flights are almost always cheaper than nonstops on longer-haul flights. In fact, the price difference between a connecting flight and a nonstop can be substantial. Of course, a connecting flight means longer travel time and the possibility of being delayed. Weather can also play a role. If it’s winter and you’re flying American Airlines, opt to connect through its Dallas-Fort Worth hub over stormy O’Hare in Chicago. —Everett Potter
Select Your Travel Days Carefully
Look for flights that depart on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, when fares are generally at their lowest, according to George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com. Also worth noting: on many routes, travelers pay a premium for round-trips that don’t include a Saturday.
Book a Red-Eye
As the airline industry’s loss leaders, red-eyes are often cheaper than their daytime counterparts. JetBlue offers red-eye service from Long Beach, CA, to JFK; LAX to Boston; and Oakland, CA, to Washington Dulles. Virgin America, American Airlines, and Delta also offer coast-to-coast red-eyes. Book a window seat to avoid disturbances, and don’t forget your eye mask and earplugs. —Everett Potter
Watch for Price Drops
If you get stuck paying a lot for your tickets, keep checking fares. JetBlue and Alaska will give you a credit for any drop in price, while AirTran and Virgin America will repay you the difference if the fare for your flight decreases by $75 or more. Sign up at yapta.com, which keeps track of prices and airline policies.
Watch for Midweek Sales
Airline sales are invariably short-lived and typically last no more than three days. Airlines tend to roll them out late Monday or early Tuesday morning; by Thursday, they’re gone. That brief window is your optimum time to search for the best deal of the week. —Everett Potter