Updated: February, 2014
How To Find Cheap Flights
The most common question I get from readers is How do I find cheap airfares?
It’s complicated, I usually reply.
Having a good idea of how the industry works, the different options for buying airline tickets, and how to get the best deal and cheapest price on a ticket can make the whole experience a fun first step into planning your trip.
I’ll describe below my thoughts on finding cheap fares and how I go about planning a route, picking an airline, and searching for the best ticket deals.
But first I’m going to start with the basic steps I use when searching for a flight.
So, in 7 steps (or less depending on how committed you are) this is how I find cheap airfares:
1. Search for Flights
These are the websites I use when searching for a flight:
- Vayama.com – best for flights
- Travelocity.com – best for flight + hotel packages
- Expedia.com – best for vacation packages
Incredibly they really can have different fares – so if you’re after the best price then you need to search them all. Have fun!
If possible use the flexible search options. The best days to fly are usually – though not always – Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday. Thursday and Friday are the most expensive days to fly.
Take note of the best prices, routes, and flights that are returned. If they’re good fares, buy them and forget about the rest of this post, if you want to keep searching then go to step 2.
2. Check For Sales
The above websites should return all current sales but sometimes they miss a seat sale put on by a specific airline for a short window of dates. The following websites work best when you have a destination in mind but are flexible for the dates you travel.
3. Look At The Budget Airlines
Budget airlines typically don’t appear on travel websites like Orbitz or Kayak so you’ll have to search on different sites to find those fares.
Search for budget flights using these sites:
- Budget Airlines in Europe
- Budget Airlines in North America
- Budget Airlines in Latin America
- Budget Airlines in Asia and Australia
These provide listings of flights on budget and low-cost carriers. Budget airlines tend to fly shorter routes and any route that requires a change of planes probably isn’t worth the hassle. But looking never hurts.
If you find a budget airline flying the route you need, then visit their website and check the price. Be sure to account for baggage fees and extra charges.
4. Use Google
Go to Google Flights and search for your origin and destination cities. Follow the most intriguing links to see if there are any legitimate sales.
5. Visit Airline Websites
Once you’ve decided on the best flight based on price, route, and dates be sure to visit the website of the actual airline (e.g. United or British Airways). They’ll sometimes be selling the same ticket you found on Travelocity or Vayama for a cheaper price – though it can often be more expensive as well.
I’ll repeat this!
Say you find a great price on Vayama.com for a British Airways flight from New York to London. Before you buy it visit the British Airways’ website as they will sometimes be selling it for the same price or cheaper.
6. Will The Price Go Up or Down?
Now you should have a best price, but before you purchase it take a look at Bing flight predictor or FareCompare to see predictions (based on historical data and a complex algorithm) on whether the price for that route is likely to go up, down or stay the same.
7. When To Buy That Ticket?
And when should you actually buy your tickets?
The best time to purchase airline tickets is between Monday night and Wednesday afternoon (sales come out on Monday, are matched by early Tuesday, and disappear by Thursday); not before 3 1/2 months prior to your trip; and not after 7 to 10 days prior to your trip (when airlines assume you’re a business traveler and will pay whatever it takes).
Statistically, the best time to purchase tickets is
- 6 weeks before you fly for U.S. domestic flights
- 21 to 22 weeks in advance for flights to Europe
- 11 to 12 weeks in advance for flights to the Caribbean
- 23 to 24 weeks in advance for international business or first class
What You Need To Know About The Airline Industry To Find Cheap Fares And Save Money
Different types of Airlines: Legacy and Low Cost Carriers
Picking the best airline and flights for your trip starts with your decision to fly with a legacy carrier (sometimes called a major) or with a low cost carrier (sometimes called a budget or charter airline).
The legacy carriers are typically the big names you first think of when you consider airlines: United, Delta, British Airways and Lufthansa. The low cost carriers (or LCC from here on) are the upstarts with the hip new names: Jet Blue, Ryan Air, Virgin Airlines and Air Asia, for example.
The two types of carriers often act like two parallel travel worlds that rarely cross paths with each other. The carriers often fly from different airports, sell their tickets in a different manner, offer different inflight options and can have very different prices. And that’s just a start.
Here are the key points that define legacy and low cost carriers:
- Generally have better and more complete service than LCCs — e.g. transfer bags between connecting flights, serve meals, offer in-flight entertainment.
- Typically offer passengers different classes of seating (e.g. first class, business class), airport lounges and frequent flyer programs.
- Most legacy airlines are a member of an alliance whereby partner airlines share routes, offer connecting flights and issue boarding passes for other airlines.
- Work on the hub and spoke model between major cities.
- Tickets for missed flights (because of a missed connection) are usually honored.
Low Cost Airlines
- Known for cheap — often ridiculously cheap — ticket prices. Some of the European LCCs have offered flight promotions with tickets across the continent for as little as €1. But even non-promotion ticket prices are regularly in the €10-30 range. (These ticket prices however, often don’t include the high taxes and fees that LCCs usually charge. Be sure to compare the total ticket cost not just the initial quoted price when booking.)
- Usually fly shorter trips and routes (e.g. Amsterdam to Rome) — though this is changing and it’s now possible to complete an Around The World trip solely on Low Cost Carriers.
- Large fluctuations between ticket prices by the hour, by the days of the week, by high and low season.
- Must book through each individual airline’s web site and usually no ticket issued (i.e. only paperless ticket).
- Flights are point to point, so you don’t get a discount for flying from point A to B, and then B to C like you would on a Major airline
- Return tickets (i.e. a typical roundtrip ticket) are usually the cost of 2 one way tickets.
- Luggage is rarely conveyed from one flight to another connecting flight even when both flights are with the same airline. Passengers will need to collect their bags and re-check them at the baggage counter.
- Often use smaller airports that can be quite a distance from the city and the city’s main airport. Check transfer times and distances carefully if you’re connecting to a flight on a different airline.
- Baggage restrictions are often stricter on low cost carriers and checked baggage will usually entail a charge of €5-20 euros and then an excess baggage charge for heavier bags.
- Some Low cost Carriers have credit card charges (Ryanair has a €5 charge for credit cards) on top of the fees, taxes, and baggage costs.
- Usually no in-flight entertainment
- Not always the cheapest. The majors have become more competitive with pricing so don’t automatically assume that the budget airline has the cheapest ticket.
- LCCs can and often do change times, dates and routes with little or no notice. You’ll have the choice of rebooking or getting a refund but if your entire vacation is dependent on getting from, say, London to Mykonos, this could be a major interruption to your plans.
How do Low Cost Carriers Keep their prices so low?
It’s often asked — how can budget airlines offer such cheap tickets and why, if these airlines are so popular, don’t the majors just offer the same inexpensive services? There are a number of reasons and not all apply to all airlines or situations but the most important differences between Low Cost and Legacy airlines are the following:
- LCCs service shorter routes and flights where quick turn-arounds are both possible and have a big effect on down time.
- LCCs often have newer more fuel-efficient aircrafts that keep fuel costs down.
- LCCs don’t have the legacy costs of the majors – pensions, health care, and generally don’t have to deal with unions.
- LCCs are no frills and this helps keep costs down.
- Some would argue that LCCs have just been better run. The major airlines were probably slower in realizing changes to the travel industry through deregulation, the advent of the internet, point to point route models and adopting the technology that allows budget airlines to keep their fleet airborne a large percentage of the day.
Legacy or Low Cost Carrier — Which is Better?
If both low cost and legacy carriers offer the same price on the same route then go with the major airline. The service is usually better, you’ll probably get a free meal, and there’s a lot more certainty with the flight. (It’s important to remmber that LCCs are not always the cheapest.)
Because LCCs fly to smaller airports that can be a good distance from the main airport, be sure to have at least 3 or 4 hours to get from one airport to another if you’ve got a connecting flight to catch from a different airport.
Flying to smaller airports (and smaller towns) isn’t all bad: they’re usually less busy and security checkpoints are usually less hectic. As well, if that small city or island happens to be the exact place you’re going, then clearly LCCs can work well for you.
General Tips to Buying Airline Tickets
Advice for buying tickets and ideas for getting the cheapest price:
- Tuesday and Wednesday are the cheapest days to fly. The weekends are the most expensive. Searching for tickets off the pick days of the week can save you 20% to 40% of the ticket price.
- Finding discounted tickets: It’s impossible to keep track of ticket prices to every interesting destination for all possible dates. But these sites will keep you informed of the latest deals and last-minute discounts: Travelzoo for international travel (and hotels) and AirfareWatchDog for domestic (U.S.) routes.
- Flights between Europe and North America follow the most predictable price patterns. They ramp up at the end of May and enter peak season at the end of June and beginning of July. The decrease starts suddenly in the last week of August with the final big drop coming the middle week of October.
- Flights between Europe and Asia and between North America and Asia are more complex but generally increase for December, January, July, and August and are cheaper throughout the rest of the year. There can be huge differences between a New York to Bangkok flight and a New York to Singapore flight, so if your travel plans are flexible be sure to check every possible route.
- If you have to travel to a specific place on specific dates (e.g. a family wedding, you got an Oscar nomination) then booking early is the best way to go. But for everything else, the book early advice is nonsense — or at least potentially nonsense. Flight prices go up, flight prices go down. It’s all about supply and demand. If a flight from London to Rome for next month is half full then you’re going to get a great deal (much better than the price you would have gotten booking 6 months in advance). If there’s one ticket left it will cost a fortune.
- The key to getting great ticket prices is flexibility: flexible on where to go, flexible on when to go, flexible on how to go (direct or stopover, business or economy). The more flexibility you have the better you’re going to do. Be sure to search for “flexible dates” when you’re able to do so.
- For the Major airlines and for most long haul routes (e.g. across the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans or between any 2 continents) search first in Vayama.com, Travelocity.com, or Expedia.com then take the best 3 or 4 prices from the cheapest airlines and search those individual sites for similar dates. Occasionally they will have better prices than the consolidators.
- If you’re traveling as a family be sure that the website you’re using to search for flights allows the option to search for youth tickets. These can sometimes be cheaper by as much as 40%, though this is less common than it used to be.
- Since Low Cost Carriers only sell their tickets through their web sites and not through large travel sites it’s difficult to compare costs and find routes for budget airlines. (Kayak, Vayama, Travelocity, Expedia and the other big travel sites don’t always have information on the low cost carriers.) That’s where web sites like Skyscanner and Which Budget come in handy. Find the best route and price from these web sites then make your way to that airline’s site to purchase the tickets.
- I strongly recommend buying what’s referred to as an open-jaw ticket. This means you arrive-at and depart-from different cities. For example fly New York to London on your outbound trip, but return Paris to New York on your inbound trip. You save time and money by not having to return to your arrival city (where you’ve already been). The main downside to this is that the very cheapest deals in the airline industry are often tied to the same city (e.g. a return Los Angeles-Hong Kong ticket) but excluding the very cheapest deals – which most people don’t get anyways – the cost of an open jaw ticket can be fairly similar to a more standard ticket. Be sure to check this out.
And finally, the web site FareCompare recently ran through their data and came to these interesting conclusions:
- Shop Tuesday at 3pm for domestic (U.S.) airline tickets. (Sales start to hit the wires Monday, are matched by other airlines by Tuesday afternoon and disappear by Thursday night — so you have a 3 day window to get the best deals on tickets sales.)
- Airlines start discounting about 3 1/2 months before departure for U.S. domestic flights and 4-5 months before for international flights. If you buy before this you’ll probably be paying full fare.
- Airline ticket prices increase dramatically inside 14 days before departure - 10 or 7 days before for low cost airlines. (After that they assume you’re last-minute business traveler who’ll pay what ever it takes to get a flight.)
Around the World Trips
Travelers are using around the world tickets (RTW) more often these days and often for good reason. You can see a lot places with a well planned itinerary that is usually good value and makes a good use of time.
I recommend these tickets for people who want to see the world and have between 3 weeks and 3 months for their trip.
Any less time and you’d be on a plane most of your trip. (3 weeks is pushing the practicality of such a trip to begin with, but if you have 5 or 6 cities you just have to see, and a limited amount of time an RTW ticket can be the way to do it.)
Any more time and you might want to consider a more unplanned trip that utilises budget airlines and cheap off-season one way tickets. It’s not unreasonable to be able to do an around the world trip using the buy-as-you-go method for half the price of a true RTW ticket. And the freedom you get from having an unplanned itinerary is fun and liberating.
Tips for Planning an Around the World Trip
- RTW tickets offer great value for business and first class travel. If you always travel in the better service classes or are considering a splurge, RTW tickets for these classes are often as little as 50% more than a regular ticket.
- Compare prices from different starting points — prices can often be cheaper starting from Europe (especially London) or Asia (Bangkok has great deals) than from North America. If the difference in price is great enough, look for a cheap one way flight to get you to your starter-city.
- It’s not always true but to keep it simple: route changes involve a large fee, time and date changes have no fee or a small one.
- If you need to make changes contact the airline of the flight directly (not the consolidator that sold you the ticket) — often they won’t charge the flight change fees stipulated in your ticket agreement (To them it’s just a regular ticket.)
- Consider going overland for some of your trip — it saves you the time and expense of backtracking and can make the ticket considerably cheaper. (e.g. Arrive in Singapore, travel overland on your own to Bangkok, depart from Bangkok — or — Arrive in London, travel overland to Istanbul, depart from Istanbul.)
- Good sites for planning your trip: Star Alliance Fare Planner for planning a trip on the largest airline alliance of them all. OneWorld Explorer isn’t quite as big as Star but has better coverage of South and Central America. AirTreks is a popular trip planner based in San Francisco. Trailfinders is good at tailoring budget trips to specific needs and destinations.
Booking Flights with Budget Airlines
As I mentioned above, the web sites Skyscanner and Which Budget can be helpful in finding routes and schedules for budget airlines. For the most accurate information and flight schedules — and when it’s time to actually purchase a ticket — you will have to visit the airline’s website.
FAQ On Buying Air Tickets – A summary and overview of popular questions
Q. Will airfares go down or up in 2014?
A. This is the question everyone has been asking over the last 2 months. There were some fare increases in 2012 and 2013 – but due to the recession airfares are not much more now than they were at the start of 2012.
Here are my thoughts for the changes ahead:
- Fall and winter are typically the cheapest times to fly and this year will be no exception. Good deals are already appearing for January and February flights to Europe in 2014.
- The trend of charging passengers fees for checked bags, aisle seats, onboard meals, entertainment options, and many others “extras” will continue.
- With people seemingly reluctant to book flights, hotels have been offering some great deals for summer bookings. Booking your hotel room early is always a good plan. I think more so now.
- 2014 will be the year that smart phones, iPads, Kindles, and other tablets will be allowed to remain powered during takeoff and landing. There’s little evidence these electronics pose a risk to the aircraft and pressure has been building to allow them to stay on.
Q. What are the best websites for finding cheap flights?
A. The secret is to check as many sources as possible. These are my 3 favorites:
Q. Is business class worth the extra money?
A. Often yes, but of course it depends on your own personal budget.
Here are some of the perks of business and first class (from this summary).
- priority check-in
- more check-in baggage
- sometimes access to an elite lounge with food and drinks
- early boarding
- more spacious seating
- more carry-on space
- flat beds on some international flights
- more attentive and friendly flight attendants
- higher quality food, selection, and service; free drinks
- less busy bathroom
- fewer children / crying infants
- priority baggage service
- first off the plane, first to customs, etc.
- more reward miles
- more flexible booking arrangements and overall better service
- priority security screening
- celebrity sighting opportunities
- schmoozing with high-profile people
- complimentary ground service to and from the airport
- special treatment in case of flight delays or cancellations
- psychological benefits of feeling superior to those in economy class
Q. What’s the best way to get a seat upgrade?
A. Belong to the airline’s Elite Club – or at least belong to their frequent flier program. Without this you stand little chance of getting an upgrade. Airlines reward loyalty and this is how they show it.
Q. When is the best time to buy my ticket?
A. The sweet spot is between 6 weeks and 3 months prior to your flight for domestic flights, 2 months to 4 months for Caribbean destinations, and 4 to 5 months for Europe. Any farther before and the airlines haven’t started to actively manage fares on the route. The pricing is still on auto-pilot, if you will. Any closer to your flight than these ranges and most cheap seats will be sold out. Within 2 or 3 weeks of a flight airlines assume you’re a business traveler (or a desperate one) that will pay whatever the fare is.
- 12 Ways to Find Cheap Flights – Helpful and simple list of steps
- The New Airline Change Fees That Hurt Family Travelers Most – and how to avoid them
- GetGoing.com – choose 2 possible destinations and get some pretty great deals.
- Buying Tip When Purchasing Group Tickets – from Rick Seaney
- When To Buy That Airplane Ticket – a review of the data from the NY Times
- How To Accumulate All Frequent Flier Miles In One Place – a super helpful post that every frequent flyer should read.
- How To Complain to the Airlines: Effective Ways to Get Ahead
- One Bag – The Art and Science of Traveling Light
- SeatGuru – Information on Airlines, Airplanes, and In-flight Amenities