How to Find a Cheap Airplane Ticket
Airline tickets seem to get more expensive every year. That flight that cost $200 last year is $400 this year and, as flights often represent the biggest expense of someone’s trip, these higher prices are keeping more people at home. While the era of dirt-cheap air travel is over, there are still ways to find deals.
The four major reasons prices go up and down are competition, supply, demand, and oil prices. Together, these four measures affect a lovely thing called “load factor”. Airlines want to fill their planes and maximize profits, and they do this by calculating a plane’s load factor. Essentially, this is the percentage of seats sold on a flight. If the load factor and demand are both low, an airline will increase the availability of cheap fares to fill the plane. If the load factor and demand are high, the airline will raise the price.
Thus it is a constant battle to get the cheapest ticket before an airline raises the price. Luckily, there are still plenty of ways to avoid being the person who paid the most. To me, that’s what it is all about – being one of the lucky ones who got one of those cheap price points from the airline. While this is a subject I’ve brought up before, it has been years since I’ve addressed it on the blog and, given the changing nature of air travel, I wanted to talk about the latest ways to find cheap airfare:
Be flexible with your travel
Ticket prices vary greatly depending on the day, time of day, time of year, and upcoming holidays. If the kids are on school break, expect higher fares. If it’s a holiday, the fare goes up. Anytime more people want to fly, fares go up.
Being flexible with your dates and times is one of the most important ways to save money. The difference of a day can mean the difference of hundreds of dollars. You want to fly when no one else is flying. It’s cheaper to fly mid-week than on a weekend because most people travel on the weekends and airlines raise prices for those flights. If you fly right after a major holiday, prices tend to be a bit cheaper. Think about Thanksgiving, which is on a Thursday. Everyone flies home that Tuesday and Wednesday so fares are higher on those days. Since people return on Sunday or Monday, fares are high those days, too. But since most people want to stay with their families and shop on that Friday, returns are low on that day.
Moreover, early morning or late night flights tend to be cheaper. Few people want to be up at 5 a.m. for a flight or have to fly overnight. Most business travelers leave on Monday and come back on Friday and families tend to travel over the week, thus mid-week fares tend to be less expensive.
If you aren’t flexible in the dates and times you want to fly, you will never be able to find a cheap flight.
Be flexible with your destinations
Instead of going to a place with an expensive flight, go where the flight is the cheapest. Kayak offers the “Explore tool” that allows you to put in your airport and see route prices all around the world. Just look to see what destination is the cheapest! Google Flights also has a similar (and better) feature and I use it often. If you are flexible with where you want to go (i.e. anywhere but home), this is a great way to start researching where to go.
I always enter in my departing airport and search for “anywhere.” Whatever comes up the cheapest in an area I want to explore is often where I go!
Fly budget airlines
In America, there are only a handful of budget airlines. In Europe, there dozens and competition has kept prices there very low. In Asia, Air Asia has led to a huge drop in fares and is a great budget airline to fly. Often these low-cost airlines offer no-fare tickets — you pay just the taxes. Flying the budget airlines is a good alternative to flying the “majors” whenever possible. You get fewer “perks” but you can save a bundle in ticket costs. But be sure to check out how far the airports are from the city center — sometimes transportation from the airport to the city can actually make a budget airline more expensive.
More and more budget carriers are doing long-haul, cross continent flights (i.e. Norwegian to the U.S. or Air Asia to Australia or South Korea) and these airlines represent a big savings opportunity. Be sure to fly them. Momondo and Skyscanner have the best listings of budget carriers.
Find alternative routes
Not only is it important to be flexible with your dates, but try being flexible with the route you take. There are so many budget carriers around the world that taking advantage of a good deal to another city and then hopping on a budget flight to your destination is sometimes the best way to go. I had to go to Paris once. The flight was $900 USD but I could fly to Dublin for $600 and get a $60 flight to Paris. It meant more flying time, but the $240 I saved was worth it. I use Google Flights to look for a cheap major airport to fly into and then Skyscanner or Momondo for a budget flight to my final destination.
By working various airlines and special offers, you can save a lot. This method is more work as you have to figure out lots of different routes and check different airlines, but it will often shave money off your flight, giving you more to spend at your destination.
Check multiple search sites
Whenever most Americans do a Web search for airline tickets, they search Expedia or Orbitz. As this article shows, you are making a big mistake if you do just that. You need to search as many flight search websites as you can in order to ensure you are leaving no stone unturned. Many sites don’t list budget carriers because those airlines don’t want to pay a booking commission.
It’s important to check multiple booking sites as all websites have their weaknesses and do not include every airline. You aren’t going to find Air Asia, Ryan Air, or most other budget airlines on large US-based sites. All booking sites have blind spots since they don’t cover every region of the world and every airline equally. Check multiple sites. My favorites are:
Take advantage of student discounts
If you are a student, there are many, many discounts available to you. Check out STA Travel and their search engine. You can find flexible student tickets on their website and at agency stores. I used them for a $400 ticket from Athens to Bangkok. That wasn’t even the cheapest flight, either, just the cheapest direct flight. There are many student codes out there, and many of the tourist agencies in backpacker areas can help find you a cheap ticket.
Clear your cookies
While it’s not 100% proven that booking sites and airlines track your cookies and change prices, there’s enough circumstantial evidence for me to say that if you’re going to be checking prices over multiple days, clear your cookies each time. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Use frequent flier miles
Airline rewards programs are a great way to get free flights, free upgrades, and free companion tickets. No matter how often you fly, you should be signed up for the airline’s reward program. I stick to US based airlines since they are involved in all the major alliances and you can earn miles on their partner flights. For example, if I fly Singapore Airlines, I can earn United Airlines miles because they are partners. I get Delta miles on an Air France flight and vice-versa. Or American Airlines and Cathay Pacific. You should always be earning miles when you fly. If you aren’t from the States, simply use the airline you fly most and bank miles to them.
Moreover, there are a lot of other ways to earn miles if you aren’t jetsetting around the world all the time:
- Shop via airline portals – All airlines have special offers for large retailers. Shopping at those stores will earn you 2 to 4 miles per dollar spent (sometimes more). All you do is shop online via the links on an airline’s website and you’ll get the extra points added to your account. It’s a lot better than earning one point per dollar spent by going to the store directly. The products don’t cost any extra. I do all my shopping through these portals simply for the extra miles.
- Watch for special offers – I sign up for newsletters because they often feature offers not found on an airline’s website. This could be triple miles on a selected route, taking a survey, participating in a Facebook contest, or simply installing an airline shopping toolbar in your web browser. These bonuses aren’t high but they take minimal effort and add up over time.
- Be a Crazy Flyer – On forums like FlyerTalk, where people hunt out the latest chances for miles, you often find people doing mileage runs. This means that an airline will offer triple miles or double elite qualifying miles (these miles, unlike normal miles, count towards your elite flyer status and can only be earned by flying) if you fly a certain route. When airlines get into price wars or offer new routes, they often launch ridiculous double or triple mile offers. Many people then fly these routes just for the miles. They will fly from California to New York and back again if they find a dirt cheap fare in order to gain miles. Mileage runs are very common and while not free, can be a useful method to gain a lot of miles on a cheap fare.
- Put everything on the card – I pay nothing in cash. I put everything on my travel credit card – from Starbucks to phone bills. My total monthly spending, including my business expenses, is about $3,000 per month. That’s 36,000 miles just for doing nothing special. That’s a free one-way flight to Europe right there.
In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character said “I don’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit my miles account.” Think like that. By following the tips above and using the websites listed in the credit card section for finding bonus offers, you’ll be able to accumulate a lot of flight miles.
Don’t miss out on sales
No one likes to clutter up their inbox, but by signing up for mailing lists from airlines and search engines, you’ll be able to get updates about last-minute deals or mistake fares (like the recent $130 NY to Tokyo flight on Priceline). Many times, ticket sales are only available for 24 hours, and if you aren’t always checking the web, you miss out. I would have missed out on a round trip ticket to Japan for $700 USD (normally $1,500) if I wasn’t on American Airlines’s mailing list. Mailing lists are essential and I subscribe to a ton.
I collate all these deals each week and send them out in a weekly newsletter. If you don’t want to subscribe to hundreds of newsletters, subscribe to mine and let me do all the work for you.
Additionally, Airfarewatchdog, Holiday Pirates (Europe based), and The Flight Deal are great sites that will keep you alert of last minute specials or deals.
Moreover, if you use Twitter, follow airlines and search websites because they post a lot of fare sales that can keep you in the loop.
Avoid peak season
Want to go to Europe in the summer or Hawaii during Christmas or Disney when the kids are on break? So does everyone else and as such airline tickets are priced at their highest since the demand is so great. Be a contrarian traveler and save.
Buy at the right time
The best time to book a ticket is around 6 to 8 weeks before your flight, and around 12 to 16 weeks if booking during peak season. During this time period, airlines know if a flight is going to sell or not and will begin to either lower or increase fares based on demand. Don’t wait until the last second because airlines realize if you are booking close to departure, you probably need the flight. On the flip side, don’t book too far in advance because airlines are going to wait as long as possible to release the cheaper fares.
Know your price
People always try to get the lowest price, wait too long, and then pay too much. We all know airline prices bounce up and down, yet most of us miss the lowest price by holding out a bit too long. Therefore, it’s important to know what you want to pay, not what you hope to pay. What’s the lowest price for YOU? What do you feel comfortable paying? Don’t wait for the perfect price — wait for YOUR price.
Be realistic too. If the lowest available price is $1,000 for a flight but the average is $1,500, don’t try to wait for $800 – that’s probably not going to happen. Given that flights are best around eight to twelve weeks out, I’ll begin to look around three months in advance and slowly see how the price goes. If it starts to the high end of my comfort zone, I’ll look at available seats on the flight. If there aren’t many left, I’ll book the flight as normally this indicates prices aren’t going to go down (a mostly sold-out plane means airlines have no incentive to lower the price). Sometimes I don’t find a price I’m comfortable with and I look for a new place to go.
Book within your comfort zone and never have buyer’s remorse.
The prices of airline tickets aren’t going to get cheaper anytime soon. While tickets are historically cheap when compared to inflation, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when the ticket we bought last year is twice the price this year. All we can do is hope to get a price we are comfortable with and avoid being the
sucker person who paid the most for that tiny economy seat. With the tips above, you’ll be able to do just that and have more money for your destination!
By Nomadic Matt