Step-by-Step Guide to Buying Airplane Tickets
1: Get ready
- If you are flying internationally, double-check that round trips aren’t significantly cheaper than separate one-way flights. On many routes, the cost of a round trip is simply the sum of the cost of the individual flight segments (and sometimes even less). However, some international routes are still priced the old-fashioned way, where a round trip is much less expensive than two separate one-way tickets. Quickly check the price for a round trip flight and compare against the cost of one-ways, so you'll know whether you can focus on each flight individually (as we prefer) or you need to search for round trip flights instead.
- Prepare to take notes. In most cases, you are going to want to compare several different route options and you’ll need to write the information down.
2: Search for your flight options with Google Flights
Google Flights is the best choice for most of your airfare searching.
- Switch to one-way searches. This makes it far easier to understand your different flight options (and can help you save money).
- If multiple people are traveling, search using fewer people. If you search for the full number of people in your party, you may see prices that are higher than the rate you might be able to get for some of the tickets. On the other hand, it isn't useful to find a cheaper flight for a group of 4 or 5 people, if there is only one seat left at that price. We initially set the number of passengers to half the number of people who are flying. For example, if we are booking a family of four, we do most of our searching for 2 passengers.
- Start with the “ideal” date for your trip. For now, ignore the prices that show up in the calendar. The lowest prices for each day probably aren't for flights you’d be willing to take and might not even be available. Just get started seeing what is available on the best possible day for your trip.
- Add nearby airports (if any). Google support special "codes" for some cities like New York that have multiple airports. But you could also manually add a nearby airport in a different city. For example, if you are travelling near Milwaukee, you could add both Milwaukee and Chicago O'Hare to your search.
- Adjust the filters to show just the flights you’d be willing to take. If you wouldn’t consider a red-eye, don’t want to fly on a particular airline, only want to fly on your favorite airline, are only interested in non-stops, or have other dominant flight preferences, you can adjust the “filters” to show only the flights you want. One nice thing in Google Flights is that the price projections on the calendar view will reflect those choices.
- Write down the best flights options for each day. Often there is a trade-off between price, timing, and your normal airline preference. You need to decide which flight works best for you. If there are options that are otherwise about equally good, you can click on each of the flights to see details about the legroom and inflight amenities on the currently schedule airplane.
- Even if a single flight looks like the best choice, write down any other flights that are about as good. There is a small advantage to booking all your flights with the same airline and depending on the options for your return flight, you might decide to use one of the nearly-as-good options. If you are booking for multiple people, you might find that the cheapest option becomes more expensive for some of the people in your party and the next best option might become the better deal. And you may consider buying "backup tickets".
- Check other days that can work. The easiest way to check another day is to press the small arrows in the date box. Click multiple times to check all the dates that can work and write down any good flight options you can find.
- Check other weeks that can work. Sometimes you have more flexibility for when you might travel. If so, you can repeat the process for other weeks. While you can't depend on the calendar to show the price you'd wind up paying, it can be helpful to focus your efforts on days where you are likely to find lower prices. In this example, it looks like shifting the travel dates out by a few weeks is unlikely to help, but shifting backwards by a week might save a considerable amount of money.
- Potentially check airports that are further away. Before moving on, it can be worthwhile to check if it might be worthwhile to take advantage of a more far-flung airport.
- Especially for domestic flights, make sure to check for premium cabin seats. Sometimes the prices are surprisingly close to the price for economy seats. It can also be worthwhile to also see what you can find for “Premium Economy”. You can change your flight class towards the top of the page.
In this example, it might turn to be worthwhile to book the slightly more expensive Alaska Airlines flights.
In our example, if we switch to Saturday morning, the price drops by $20. If we are willing to miss out on being in San Diego on Saturday morning, you can save $20 per person on the flights and also the cost of the hotel room on Friday night.
When we add Ontario, we find much lower prices for Friday night. Each person might make their own trade-off of whether it is worth the extra drive to save the extra money.
With any given search, Google Flights can search up to six starting cities and sixending cities and you can even save flights to or from multiple cities for flight alerts.
In our example, the cheapest first-class ticket was “only” about $100 more than the cheapest nonstop coach flight.
Repeat the process for the return trip. Or if you are flying on a multi-city itinerary, for each flight leg.
3: Make sure you aren’t ignoring “discount” airlines
Once you are done figuring out your best options with Google Flights, you might want to check one or more other sites to make sure that you don’t miss out on lower fares from discount airlines that aren't included in Google's listings.
- For trips in North America, it is often worthwhile to check Southwest Airlines. You probably need to change the sort order to easily view the most direct or cheapest flights.
- If you are flying outside of North America, we find that it is worthwhile to search Kayak / Momondo. Kayak.com and Momondo share the same backend and search some discount airlines that Google does not. They also sometimes find slightly better prices on the flights you found on Google Flights, usually via smaller “online travel agents” that are competing aggressively on price.
You can quickly search other dates using the date control at the top of the results. Unfortunately, you need to reset the sort order each time.
However, they works so much slower, that you are better off doing most of your searches on Google. If you search for a few different travel dates for your trip on Kayak / Momondo and you aren’t seeing some new interesting flights, you don’t need to bother doing an exhaustive search. Kayak offers a convenient baggage fee assistant and Momondo provides pricing from a few additional travel booking sites.
If you want to be even more diligent, check Skyscanner as well. Kayak / Momondo is the more likely of the two platforms to find the best fares, but Skyscanner sometimes finds some unique fare options.
4: Make any adjustments
- If you are traveling as a group, make sure that you can all fly for the same fare. There may be fewer tickets available at the currently lowest fare than the number of passengers you are flying with. If so, you usually want to break your reservation into two separate reservations—one to take advantage of the number of available tickets at the cheaper fare and the other to pay a higher fare for the remaining passengers. If you book as a single reservation, the airline will charge the higher price for all the passengers. If the higher fare isn’t much higher and you can extend some useful extra benefits (like free checked bags) to other people on the same reservation, you might want to keep everyone on a single reservation, even if it means paying a higher price.
- Consider flying both directions on the same airline. If your flight has change fees, depending on the difference in fare and/or convenience, it may make sense to choose a second-choice flight for one of the directions, so that you can book both directions on the same airline (or its partner). If you book a round trip and you wind up having to change your ticket, you will pay only one change fee, rather than separate fees for each direction.
- If you can book without change fees, you usually want to lock in the current price. If prices drop, you can rebook at the cheaper price. Although you'll wind up with a credit you'll need to use on a future flight.
- Otherwise, you may want to check to see if prices are likely to change. If you are flying on a basic economy ticket, on an airline that doesn't waive change fees, or you don't want to wind up with a flight credit, you may want to decide whether to buy now or hold off in cases prices drop. There are few rules of thumb and tools that can help you make your decision. Use Airfare Prediction Tools to Determine the Right Time to Buy Airline Tickets.
This is especially useful if you are flying internationally with one of the major US airlines as change fees might not be waived for your return flight, unless it is all part of the same reservation.
Be aware that sometimes when you combine both one-ways with the same airline, they will raise the price of one of the flights to match the fare class of the other flight(s) and your ticket price will go up even more. If so, you may want to switch back to booking separate one-way flights.
5: Buy the tickets
- If you have credit card points that are best used for airfare purchases, you might want to use them to make your purchase. For some types of credit cards rewards, you get the most value by using your points to purchase airfare. For example, points may be worth 1.5 cents each for purchasing travel, but less than 1 cent each if they are cashed out in other ways. If you have any balances, now might be a good time to use your points. Some reward programs allow you to buy on any website. You then use your points to “erase” part of the charge. But other programs require you to book through the credit card’s website.
- If you have elite status with the airline, it is usually better to book directly. This is usually the best pathway to make sure to get the preferred seating you are entitled to.
- With some airlines you’ll always need or want to book directly. For example, you are required to buy Southwest tickets directly and it is more convenient to handle Spirit trips on their own website (Spirit flights are considerably cheaper to purchase at the airport if you can; you'll avoid the "passenger usage" fee you'll see online).
- If you don’t need or want to book elsewhere, consider booking on Orbitz to earn some extra rewards. Orbitz provides the best rewards on flight purchases of the major travel booking sites. You’ll only get an extra 1-2% back but that is better than nothing and you’ll be entitled to a few other benefits. On the other hand, it is often easier to deal with the airline directly, especially if there are problems with your flight. Get Cash Back by Booking Your Airfare Through Orbitz.
- Don’t forget to enter your frequent flyer number. You should be earning miles for every ticket. If the airline belongs to one of the big three airline alliances, you can credit the miles to any of the alliance’s mileage programs. If you don’t already belong, sign up now. Make Sure to Earn Miles for Your Flight.
- If multiple people are flying in coach, we like to choose seats closer to the back of the plane and leave an empty seat between passengers. If the flight winds up not being full, the empty seats will often remain empty and we get “poor man’s business class”. If the plane is full, you can always ask the person assigned to the middle seat to switch to a window or aisle, so that you can sit with your travelling companion.
- Make sure to use a credit card that gives you good rewards on airfare purchases. Even if you have the airline’s co-branded credit card, you are usually better off using a credit card that earns great rewards on all your airfare or travel spending. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
Especially with the turmoil since Covid-19, airlines have been shifting their schedules around. If you buy a ticket well ahead of time, there is a good chance that the flight may be cancelled (or shifted to some other time of day) sometime before your trip.
If your flight is cancelled, the airline will make an effort to schedule you on other flights. But the new flights may not be acceptable. For example, you could wind up on a red-eye or needing to leave on the following day. If you want to cancel and rebook on another airline, the fares may be much higher than when you booked.
Now that most US airlines have gotten rid of their onerous change fees, it isn't crazy to simply buy two or more tickets. You'll have a backup if one of the flights changes and can't be reasonably rescheduled.
Since you'll receive a credit when you cancel the no-longer-necessary flight(s), you'll only want to do this with airlines that you fly with some frequency. And you'll usually need to do this with separate airlines as many airlines will force you to cancel redundant bookings through your system.
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