How to Save on Airfare: Tips For the Rest of Us

In flight far above the clouds after learning how to find cheap flights (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

In flight far above the clouds – hopefully you didn’t pay too much for the ticket (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

If you are looking for the “magic beans” or a “weird secret trick” to find cheap flights, this post is probably not for you.

If you are a regular person who would simply like to avoid over-paying for airline tickets, read on….

Be Willing to Fly On Off Days & At Crummy Times

Look, the airlines have NO problem, for example, filling seats at top prices during the US Thanksgiving holiday season. In case you hadn’t noticed if you’ve been insane enough to be in an airport during that part of November, the entire freakin’ planet is trying to fly somewhere the day before Turkey Day and then get back home the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

You can Google “cheap tickets to Des Moines November 25” all day long, and it’s not gonna happen.

There is a rhythm to business travel as well – people are trying to jump on that first flight Monday and they’re all trying to get home on Friday.

Ergo, you will usually find the cheapest deals if you fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Saturdays.

It’s hard to nail down the time of day when a flight is most likely to be the cheapest available. It’s not always that 6 a.m. departure, because those tend to fill up with business travelers trying to get to their destination ASAP to get in a full day of work. It may, however, be cheapest to grab a 6 a.m. flight on a Saturday.

Sure, it’s a crummy time; that’s why it’s cheaper!

Late morning into mid-late afternoon is crazy busy at airports, so it’s tough to find deals then. If you find a good price on the last flight out, keep in mind that just like at doctor’s offices, things snowball and fall behind during the day, so you’re taking a risk of delays, getting home at a truly ungodly hour, or even having to spend the night thanks to crises, weather, and delays (there go your savings along with your sanity.)

“Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t” – Travel in Off-Season

If you insist on going to Florida’s Disney World over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday, or visiting Europe in the summer, you’re going to pay for it. The airlines can fill seats at higher prices during those times, and they’re happy to do so.

Noting the obvious – airlines are in business to fill every seat on the plane and make money. They are not in business to offer you a deal unless circumstances force them to, in order to sell inventory.

This means that if you want to escape snow during the winter and vacation in a warm climate, you’ll pay more for it.

Conversely, if you vacation in summer in an area that is mostly known as a ski resort, you’ll probably find some good deals.

The cheap tickets are most findable in off-season, so if you’re in the U.S., instead of going to Europe in summer, try a short trip to Paris over the November Thanksgiving holidays, adjusting your departure/arrival days to avoid the crazy Stateside travel days as much as possible.

Thanksgiving is of course a holiday in the U.S., but not in Paris, so you’d be leaving U.S. travel frenzy for Paris in the off-season. I’d take that option in a heartbeat, and to heck with turkey.

HAVE to go to Europe in the summer? Leave the moment that you can get away, in late May or earliest June. Some fare hikes may not have kicked in yet. More tips from consumer travel expert Wendy Perrin in her post on when to buy summer airline tickets to Europe.

Sign Up For Sale Notification Emails

Be one of the first to learn about flight flash sales and deals by signing up to be emailed when they happen.

I get emails from Airfarewatchdog (currently have an alert set up with them to catch a good price on a flight from my home airport to Tampa, Florida) and have seen some great deals in emails from TravelZoo, especially packages.

The only airline email I get right now is the Click ‘N Save from Southwest Airlines because they fly a lot from my home airport; they’re always having sales, but not necessarily to places that I want to go or on the days I want to go.

The latest email has a deal to New York (US$134 one way) but that fare isn’t available until a few flights at the end of August, and it goes to the Newark, New Jersey airport, so I’d need to sort out ground transportation into Manhattan if that’s my ultimate destination.

Of note, as of this writing that Southwest US$134 one way fare is actually available ON Thanksgiving Day, but if I want to come home the following Sunday, the cheapest Southwest fare is US$377 one way.

Consider Packages

If you simply want to visit a destination and don’t really care where you stay or where the rental car comes from, a package deal may be your best bet.

If I’m going to book using a credit card, I’ll check the card’s website for any vacation package deals that fit. American Express sometimes has surprisingly affordable ones.

Be careful about the lodging offered in the package – they often feature airport hotels because those are the beds they need to fill. That hotel on the beach that you really want is doing just fine filling rooms without discounting, so if your heart is set on a certain location or type of hotel, check the package options very carefully.

Packages can be a godsend for international travel – when my daughter and nephew flew to Asia to join me for a visit a few years ago, they came on a Hong Kong package from Go-Today. The hotels were not fancy, but they were centrally located and perfectly adequate. We did not have to take the guided tour that was included, either.

Other Ways to Get Creative With Flights

Know the airline landscape where you are going, and consider building a series of one-way flights. You might be able to snag a bargain fare to Europe, for example, and then fly cheap, bare-bones Ryanair from your arrival city.

If you see a good fare, then come back a little later to pounce on it but can’t find it again, either clear your cookies or try again from a different browser. It may “reappear” to be shown to you again. This is a tip from one of our earlier posts, 4 Steps for Finding the Best Flight Deals.

Save time with a flight search engine. I prefer Kayak because when you find the right flight, it sends you to book directly with the airline, and it also shows you the likelihood of your chosen flight’s price to go up or down in the near future. I prefer to book directly with airlines, hotels, etc. rather than through middleman sites like Travelocity or Expedia. If something goes wrong, I don’t want to deal with an intermediary.

Remember that not all airlines are listed in the big search engines like Kayak – you’ll have to go directly to the Southwest Airlines, Allegiant, and Virgin America websites, for example, to see their fares.

There are people who are really good at using frequent flyer miles and points for airfare. I’m not one of those people, but to learn more I’d recommend reading through sites like Points and Travel to see if you can make it work.

And finally, the rumor is that Tuesday is the best day of the week to buy plane tickets, and Saturday/Sunday are the worst. The data may or may not support that, as sales pop up all over the place on different days. You have to know what constitutes a good price for a particular flight, and be ready to jump no matter what day it is.

That’s a lot of information to absorb – did I miss your best tip for affordable airfare? Let us know down in the comments!

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8 Comments

  1. Kerry Dexter June 25, 2015
  2. Paige June 25, 2015
  3. Tim L. June 26, 2015
  4. Brian Spencer June 26, 2015
    • Tim June 30, 2015
  5. Sheila Scarborough July 3, 2015
  6. Cacinda Maloney July 5, 2015

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