Airfare 101: Find the Lowest Fares
If you simply do a basic flight search on a travel site like Expedia, there is a good chance you will wind up paying too much for your airplane ticket.
Finding the best flight options usually takes a bit more effort. But it isn’t that complicated or time consuming.
After reading this introduction, make sure to view our Step-by-Step Guide to Buying Airplane Tickets.
Shop for each part of your trip using one-way flights
Probably the most useful flight shopping advice is to search for each part of your trip separately. Instead of searching for a round trip ticket, you should usually search for two separate one-way flights.
This is true, regardless of whether you want to spend just a few minutes searching for a flight or whether you are planning to spend more time creatively trying to uncover the best possible options. The main exception is for most long-haul transcontinental flights, where round trip tickets are still priced more cheaply than two separate one-way flights.
- Shopping for one-way flights makes it MUCH easier to understand the trade-offs between schedule and price for different parts of your trip. When you shop for round trip flights, you’ll need to browse a gigantic list of round trip permutations. It can be hard to weed through the results to clearly understand the available flight options and even harder to understand how each different option affects the overall price.
- Separate one-way tickets can be less expensive. Different airlines may offer the best fare for each direction. If you shop for a round trip ticket, the booking engine may not uncover the least expensive flight combination. While some booking sites offer “hacker fares”, which combine one-ways on two different airlines, you can't count on them uncovering your best option.
When you shop for each flight separately, you can easily see each available option and its corresponding prices, so that you can choose the best combination of price and schedule.
For example, if there are 20 useful flights each way to and from your destination, it is much easier to focus directly on those 40 flights, rather than to try to make sense of the 400 possible round trip combinations. The advantages are compounded when you are checking different combination of travel dates. For example, if you are looking at 4 different departure and return days, it is easy to check one-way prices for the 8 different dates, instead of looking at round trip prices for the 16 different date combinations. The more options you want to consider, the more useful it is to look at each direction separately.
Even when you wind up deciding to fly both flights with the same airline, they may charge you more for a round trip or multi-city itinerary than they would for the underlying one-way flights. That is because they sometimes will only book round-trip flights where each leg is in the same underlying "fare bucket", charging you more for one of the legs (where cheaper fares are still available).
- Before you get started searching for an international ticket, make sure that the route doesn't still penalize one-way tickets. While almost all domestic tickets and many international tickets are now priced simply as a combination of the underlying one-way flights, on some long-haul routes (on legacy airlines), a round trip is still much less expensive than purchasing two separate one-ways. A quick comparison search will let you know. If round trips are priced cheaper, you can still get an idea about relative pricing by looking at each one-way fare, but you’ll eventually need to deal with the extra complexities of shopping for round trip tickets.
- Once you understand your flight options, you MAY want to purchase your tickets as a complete trip, if you can. If you are using the same airline in each direction and the ticket has change fees, it is useful to eventually book the trip as a single reservation. That way, if your plans change, you won't need to pay the change or cancellation fees on both legs.
If you are flying both ways on an international flight on a US carrier, make sure to eventually book as a round trip. In most cases, change fees are only waived for tickets originating in the US or North America. If you book separate one ways, you won't be covered for your return trip.
Shop on the right website
There is no single website that is always best for searching for fares, but some websites are much better than others.
- We highly recommend using Google Flights to narrow down your options. Google Flights is blindingly fast, allowing you to rapidly experiment with different dates or alternative routes. The details of the user experience are very well designed and Google Flights includes fares from many lower cost carriers. We use it far more often than any other flight searching tool.
- Momondo, Kayak, and Skyscanner can sometimes find even lower fares. Momondo and Kayak.com use the same underlying platform and return almost exactly the same result. They do the best overall job of searching small discount airlines that operate in other parts of the world. Google is very good, but Momondo is slightly better. They also work with a collection of less well-known online travel booking sites, which will often shave a little off the price of many airline tickets. However, by the time you click through to the final screen, you sometimes find that their prices aren’t actually lower or are only a dollar or two lower than booking direct.
- You'll need to check Southwest and some other airlines as a separate step. Google Flights is the most convenient tool for investigating lots of different date and routing options. While we strongly recommend it, you need to be careful not to ignore discount airlines. For some airlines, such as Southwest, Google and Kayak / Momondo will include the flights in their listings, but won’t directly show the ticket prices. Therefore, they never bubble up to the better flight options at the top of the list or get displayed in the low-price calendar. As a result, they are easy to miss. If you want to see the actual prices, you’ll need to click on the flight links to visit the airline’s own website.
- Kayak / Momondo is the best option for setting up fare alerts. While Google Flights has a price alert feature, Kayak's and Momondo's is better. It lets you set up an alert for a range of days. Perhaps more importantly, it lets you use filter out "basic economy" fares if they won't work for your trip.
The speed of Google Flights enables you to nearly painlessly check many different combinations of dates, airports, and routes.
On routes where we expect that Google Flights may be missing some options on lower-cost foreign airlines, we make sure to use one or the other. We sometimes also use them, just before we are about to book our tickets, to see if we can get a slightly better price (but we usually don't bother). Kayak has a convenient "bag fee assistant". Momondo usually searches prices on a few extra booking sites.
Skyscanner is very similar to, but not quite as good as, Momondo. However, Skyscanner sometimes uncovers fares that Momondo and Google Flights do not. So, if you want to invest some extra energy, you can search it as well.
For flights in the US, we find it easier to just check Southwest's website directly (when they are a possible option), after looking at our other options on Google Flights.
How far ahead of time you buy your ticket is another factor that affects their price. Try to avoid last-minute airplane travel. Other than that, there are no hard-and-fast rules about when to purchase tickets. A few websites try to predict whether prices will rise or fall, but their advice is not that reliable.
The good news is that with the major US airlines, you may be able to lock in the current fare and rebook if prices drop later.
Be flexible with your dates and airports (if you can)
If you have some flexibility in your plans, it can make a big difference in how much you’ll need to pay. When you are searching, make sure to look at a combination of different dates, and sometimes different airport options, to see if you can find a lower fare.
- Changing your flights by as little as a single day, can dramatically reduce the cost of your trip. If you have the flexibility, see what options are available for a day or two in either direction from your ideal travel dates.
- Generally, flights to leisure destinations are more expensive if you travel on the weekends, especially at holiday times. Many other travelers are optimizing their travel around school and work holidays, so they want to fly out on a Friday or Saturday and fly back on a Saturday or Sunday. If you can shift your dates to fly in and out on a weekday, you’ll generally find significantly better fares. Sometimes, returning two days after the end of a holiday break can cut the price of your tickets in half.
- Flights to more business-oriented destinations are usually cheaper on the weekends. If you are flying to a city, rather than to a resort destination, the majority of travelers are probably traveling on business. Most of them want to head out and back on weekdays, especially on Mondays and Fridays. The cheapest flights tend to be Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
- If you have the flexibility, see if you can save money by shifting your entire trip one or more weeks in a different direction. Sometimes even a week can result in a dramatic change in pricing. This could be based on behind-the-scenes seasonality rules, a conference or other event that is driving up prices, or a fare war that only applies to part of the year.
- Make sure to check nearby airports. Sometimes, you can get dramatically lower fares, if you are willing to travel to a slightly more distant airport. We don’t mean just checking fares into the different airports of a multi-airport city, like New York City or London. We mean checking fares for airports that might be located one to three hours or even further away. For example, you might consider Milwaukee instead of Chicago, Los Angeles instead of San Diego, Fort Lauderdale instead of Orlando, or New York instead of Philadelphia (or vise versa).
If you are using Google Flights, you can easily view the lowest prices for different days by simply looking at the calendar boxes. But the lowest price on any given day is often on a flight that you would never take. To see the actual "acceptable" flight options for each date, you’ll need to view each individual day, but Google Flights is blazingly fast, so you can check a bunch of dates in very little time.
If you are using Momondo, you can’t really trust the date chart that is displayed at the top of the page. If you want to see the real options for each date, you'll need to take the time to search each day individually.
Travelling on the actual date of a holiday can be considerably less expensive than the surrounding dates. For example, domestic travel on Christmas and Thanksgiving is much cheaper than travelling on other days during the holiday break.
A few hours of driving (or a quick train ride) can often save significant amounts of money on your trip. If using a less well-located airport allows you to take a nonstop flight, instead of making a connection, the total length of your trip might not even be any longer. If you are taking advantage of a more distant airport, you might be better of using a one-way car rental reservation, rather than going to the airport with a car service, taxi, or friend.
Google provides convenient access to a tool that allows you to add nearby airports. You can also add up to five airports into the search boxes.
The way to get the most significant discounts is to fly when others don’t want to. Of course, you may not want to either.
Flights to Europe are much cheaper in the winter, rather than in the spring and summer. Flights to tropical destinations are cheaper in the summer then the dead-of-winter. Red-eyes and early morning flights are usually considerably cheaper than flights that travel at more convenient times. Flights with connections are often cheaper than non-stops.
If you are willing to fly when other people are not, you can usually find great deals. The same is true if you are willing to suffer through a less convenient routing. If you want the best possible routing, during peak travel days, you are simply going to have to pay the highest fares.
Rather than deciding where to go and then finding the best possible flights, you can choose your destination based on the currently available airfare bargains. There are several tools that can help you find cheaper-than-usual flights due to low-season rates, airfare price wars, or low-cost carriers.
Consider "Basic Economy" fares
When you shop for flights, the fares you'll initially see are likely to be "Basic Economy" tickets.
- You'll almost always need to pay more than the initially displayed prices if you want the benefits that come with regular tickets. Whether you are using Google Flights or shopping on the airline's own sites, the fares you initially see will almost always be basic economy tickets. This makes it much more difficult to compare prices.
- On domestic trips, you save around $15-40 per leg by buying basic economy tickets, depending on how far you are flying. You'll save even more on many international trips.
- If you don't have status, the main thing you'll be giving up are seat selection and free ticket changes. Even if you have most travel insurance, including the free insurance that comes with some credit cards, you'll only receive a refund if someone dies or you are too sick to travel, not for most other reasons you may want to cancel your trip. So, the ability to freely cancel your trip is valuable.
- If you have status, you'll also lose out the ability to upgrade your seat . While you may not be likely to get a coveted bump to the front of the plane, elites can often access an enhanced economy seat with extra legroom.
- Reduced baggage privileges aren't usually a major factor. Most airlines still allow you to brig a free carry-on and will charge the same fee for checked bags on domestic flights. The checked bag benefit on the airline's credit card also still works on basic economy fares. But if you are flying an international route, checking bags, and don't have the free bag benefit, much of the savings from basic economy could be lost to extra baggage fees.
The lack of free ticket changes doesn't just cost you extra money if you need to cancel or otherwise change your trip. It also means you can't take advantage of cheaper fares that become available after you book.
We highly value the ability to change or cancel are tickets and pick seats. Since the major US airlines chose to get rid of change fees, we usually choose to pay a little more for these benefits. For flights without free change fees, we will more frequently try to save some money with a basic economy fare.
Other basic tips
- Make sure to factor in all the fees. While Southwest Airlines has fewer fees than most other airlines, many discount airlines will nickel-and-dime you with extra charges. At the extreme end of the spectrum, airlines like Spirit Airlines in the US and Ryan airlines in Europe are famous for making most of their profits from fees, rather than from tickets.
- Another potential downside to many low cost carriers is what happens when something goes wrong. Some of the time you fly, you are going to run into some sort of problem—planes break down, bad weather affects flight operations, crew members don’t show up, planes run behind schedule. If your flight needs to be cancelled, airlines will reschedule you on the next available flight that can get you where you need to go. When this happens, it is usually better if you are on a larger legacy airline. Low-cost carriers typically have fewer flights per day, considerably smaller route networks, and fewer hubs, making it harder for them to find alternative flights. They run a tighter ship, making it harder for them to find a replacement plane or crew. And they never have mutual arrangements with other airlines for handling stranded passengers. In some cases, you can be stuck for days, while you wait for new flights to become available.
- Some people can save a lot of money each year by taking advantage of “companion certificates” they get from airline credit cards. The best options are for Alaska and Delta Airlines.
- Earn miles on every flight (in as few accounts as possible). It only takes a minute or two to add your frequent flyer information to your reservation. Don't forgo the opportunity to get free miles—there is always a way to get some value from them. And because you can earn miles for your flights with your choice of many different frequent flyer programs, you can concentrate your mileage earning in just a few frequent flyer accounts, rather than spreading them out across many different programs. Earn Miles for Every Flight (In as Few Accounts as Possible).
- Get free travel insurance and bonus reward points by booking your trip with the right credit card. If you are using the Chase combo, the Sapphire Reserve is a good option. More advanced travelers, who are comfortable using their credit card points for frequent flyer tickets, may want to use the Amex Platinum or Citi Prestige to earn some additional reward points. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
- If you are buying tickets for more than one person at a time, you may need to make multiple reservations. If there are not enough of a cheaper ticket “class” available for all the passengers on a single reservation, the airline will charge the higher price for every passenger. You’ll save money by splitting your reservation up, so that you can book at least some of your tickets at the lower rate.
- If you frequently check bags, get the credit card for the airline(s) you fly the most. Most airline credit cards provide a free bag benefit, usually for multiple passengers on the same reservation. Get Free Checked Bags with Airline Credit Cards.
- Momondo (and other services) will find booking sites that will sell you cheaper tickets but be careful where you buy. Regardless of the tool you use to figure out which flights to take, an aggregator like Momondo (or Kayak) will often find a travel site that is willing to sell you tickets at a lower cost than you can get directly from the airline (or from a larger travel site like Expedia). While you might save a few dollars, you also might come to regret your decision.
- Price and schedule aren’t everything, don’t neglect comfort. If there are several different good flight options, choose the one that is likely to be more comfortable. Several websites help you find the information to evaluate the comfort of each different flight option. Choosing Flights Based on Comfort.
Not only will you pay for checked bags, you’ll often pay for a regular-sized carry-on bag; and if you don’t pay the baggage fees online ahead-of-time, you might pay additional penalties. You’ll also often need to pay extra for advanced seat assignments, even towards the back-of-the-plane. Some airlines even charge an extra fee if you need to print out a boarding pass at the airport.
Before committing to a lower priced airline, make sure you understand and factor in the fees. With many flights, you’ll still save a significant amount of money, even once you’ve paid for your luggage and a seat assignment. On other trips, a slightly more expensive ticket with a different airline may wind up being the better choice.
If you need to make a change in your plans, some sites will charge you an extra fee (on top of whatever you owe the airline). They also don't tend to offer generous 24-hour cancellation policies like the larger travel sites.
We prefer either buying from the airline itself to avoid any additional hassles of having to deal with a third party when there is a problem; or purchasing from a one of the larger travel sites to take advantage of several potential side-benefits. If you are going to buy from a smaller site, make sure to check out their cancellation policies.
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