We’ve seen several people who have mentioned looking for advice to find cheap airfare, so we knew it was a topic we needed to address. Not knowing exactly how to start this post, I did what most people would do when asking the question, “How do I find cheap airfare?” I asked the interwebs.
The first few hits were from Online Travel Agencies like Expedia and Kayak. Not exactly what I was looking for. The next few hits were articles, so I checked out what they had to say and I found the same tips on several of these websites:
- Be flexible with your travel dates
- Be flexible about where you want to go
- Fly budget airlines
Nope, nope and nope. So much for that approach.
For starters, my travel dates ARE NOT FLEXIBLE. One day I hope to be able to take a trip whenever I want, but let’s keep living in reality for now. I have to schedule my vacation time with my employer well in advance. Like, upwards of a YEAR or a little bit more. When I’m not at work, someone else has to be there instead of me and that requires planning and advance scheduling. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this position. This means the number one tip for finding cheap airfare, flexibility, is not a choice for me. I need to find the cheapest flight for the day I can travel.
Our travel destinations ARE NOT FLEXIBLE. For example, we love to go to Schlitterbahn Waterpark in New Braunfels, Texas, and I specifically take time off from work in the summer to go there. I’m not going to go somewhere else because the airfare is cheaper. So I need to fly where I planned to go on the week I planned to go there. The same thing goes for when we go to see special events, like when we went to Desert Trip in Indigo, CA a couple of years ago or when we get tickets to see Hamilton. I didn’t set the dates OR locations, I just knew I had to be there for those dates.
We’re not thrilled about FLYING A BUDGET AIRLINE. I’ve already written about how we almost booked with Allegiant and we feel the same about booking with Spirit based on the reviews we’ve gotten from friends who’ve flown with them (and who have the scars on their knees to prove it – hi, Tyler!). We’ve flown Frontier in a pinch, but it’s only under specific conditions. When adding all of the options we’d want, like reserved seats and checked bags, they’re often not that much cheaper anyway.
So what do you do when you’re one of the “regular” people looking to save a few bucks on a flight? Well, here’s how I search to find the cheapest airfare (when shopping for flights with miles, it’s a totally different scenario):
1) Start looking as soon as possible
Don’t procrastinate. As soon as the dates of your trip are finalized, start looking for airfare. Searching for airfares can drive me crazy, but I’ve learned that time is my friend. The more time I can wait to observe airfares, the better off I am.
2) Use a website to compare airfares and set alerts
There is any number of sites that tell you they’ll give you the best airfares. I usually start with Google Flights. It has an easy to understand layout and is useful for basic searches. You’ll get a pretty good idea here of what the prices are from your initial search. You can also track prices on a specific flight, and they’ll notify you when the price changes. I used this feature and found a price drop of $100 on flights we were looking at for an upcoming trip.
There are several other websites that I would bookmark for future use:
- Skyscanner – I had never heard of this one before researching this article. I’ve been using it more and more and have found the search results to be accurate and easy to use for finding the cheapest airfares available.
- Hipmunk – I love Hipmunk because the usual searches for the cheapest flight and the shortest flight, they also have a search for the “AGONY” level of a flight. It’s a mix of the price and schedule. A cheap flight with an 18-hour layover isn’t ideal for anyone, and this website realizes this fact. Hipmunk is also very upfront with identifying “basic” economy fares on United or “no-frills” flights on Spirit.
- ITA Matrix – This is the granddaddy of online flight search. For years, it was the most powerful airfare search engine out there. It could combine airlines, schedules and come up with the cheapest option. It was so good that eventually, Google bought them and folded much of their functionality into Google Flights. It’s still a highly customizable search engine (if you want to look only for connecting flights that stop in Des Moines, IA, this is the website for you). Personally, I feel that Google is intentionally slowing down the searches (and telling you to go to their website for quicker results).
- Southwest – Southwest still does not list fares with the big online travel agencies. The only way to find out fares is to go directly to the Southwest website, so if you live in a city that Southwest flies to, it’s worthwhile to check their fares for your travel dates.
3) Be ready to jump if the fare drops
After doing your initial search, you may decide to wait to see if the fares change. It’s best to set an alert with Google Flights or Hipmunk with an email account you check regularly. If/when you get an alert that the fares have dropped, be ready to book that flight right away or risk losing that fare. For example, I came in the other day from doing some yard work and saw an alert that a fare I was watching dropped $70. I immediately went to book the flight and saw that there were 2 seats available at that price. After I booked our tickets, I went to search the flight again and the price was back up $70 higher. Sorry to anyone else who was waiting for that flight to go down in price.
4) What next? Educate yourself (on Wikipedia?)
So you’ve done all of these things, and prices are still high. What else can you do? Do you know every airline that flies from your local airport and where they fly to? I bet that you don’t. I hate to say it, but Wikipedia is one of the best resources to find out the flights from any airport. Just Google “(Your City) Airport Wiki” and you’ll see a listing for your airport. Here’s an example for the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport:
This is, essentially, a list of every airline and the cities that they fly to. This may help you discover that you’d be able to fly into a different airport that’s still close to your destination. For example, when we go to New Braunfels, TX, we can fly to either Austin or San Antonio depending on which one is less expensive.
5) Go Undercover
Did the prices of flights seem to go up the more you searched? Just to make sure that the websites aren’t playing games with you, it might make sense to use a private browsing session (or Incognito for you Chrome users). Open a new private browsing window before doing your search.
6) Find an airfare you like? Book with the airline (most of the time)
Unless you are booking a complicated flight, including several airlines (usually on an international itinerary), it just makes sense to book directly with the airline. It’s really easy, as most of the search engines mentioned above will take you directly to the airline site and even fill in all of the flight information for you. All you need to do then is pay for the flights.
The best reason for doing this is in case something goes wrong, you can communicate with the airline directly. If you use an Online Travel Agency (like Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity), the airline may want you to talk with them to arrange your rebooking. You also don’t usually save any money, either way, so you might as well book direct.
The only exception will be if the airline website is unable to book the fare that you’ve found on another website. This happens because the airline websites are set up to sell the fare they want to sell, not necessarily the one you want to buy. Only in this case would I find it OK to book with another website. Just beware that the customer service in case of a problem may be subpar when deciding if it’s worth it.
7) Decide if the cheapest flight is really the best flight
After doing all of this work, you’ve found a flight with 2 connections that leaves a 6 AM the day before you were planning on going on your trip. It’s possible to make it work AND you’ll save $75 for each ticket. But is it worth it?
Remember the extra costs you’ll be incurring. An additional day of parking at the airport. An extra night of hotel including parking if you’ll have a car. Oh, add the extra day of rental car charges, too. You’ll need to eat, so that’s an extra day of meal expenses, as well. Have you ever woken up for a 6 AM flight? If you don’t live near an airport, that may even mean having to stay overnight near the airport or waking up at 2 AM to drive there. Those multiple connections aren’t much fun, as they usually entail sprinting to get to your flight or endless waiting and stress if there are any delays. For us, leaving a day earlier would also mean an extra day of keeping our dog at the spa (it’s the kennel at the vet, but don’t tell our dog that). All of these eat into that great “cheap” flight that you found.
This is genuinely a Your Mileage May Vary decision, but we’ll often pay extra to have a later, non-stop flight. How much extra, well, that depends on what type of trip we are on. The longer the trip, the more flexible we tend to be with our flights (meaning we’ll leave early knowing we can nap when we get there). If we only have a day or two, a few more hours in our own bed means we’ll be up and ready to go when we land at our destination.
I hope the things I do to find the best (not necessarily the cheapest) airfare will help you when making your own travel plans. All these things will be influenced by the specifics of the trip you’re going on. If you’re going to a wedding, you might want to spend a few bucks to make sure you’ll get there on time. Just going to see friends for a few days, and they’re letting you sleep on the couch? You may be able to change your trip by a day or two and save some money. As always, Your Mileage May Vary.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary