Learn to Uncover the Cheapest and Most Convenient Flight Options for Your Trip (2020)
The prices for airline tickets are usually the same, no matter what website you use. The trick to paying less for your airplane tickets is to uncover less expensive flight options (rather than finding a cheaper price for any given set of flights).
Prices for the same flights will fluctuate over time. Most often they will start out relatively high, drop, and then rapidly rise as the flight fills or the travel date draws near. But they frequently move around due to sales and the whims of the airline.
The three keys for uncovering the cheapest and most convenient flight options are "flexibility", a "good flight search tool", and (usually) "searching one way at a time". The other key to saving money is to try to buy when the tickets are priced on the lower-end of their normal range.
If you simply do a basic flight search on a travel site like Expedia, there is a good chance that 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.
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.
- Separate one-way flights are often 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 will find and offer “hacker fares”, which combine one-ways on two different airlines, they often don't uncover your best options.
- 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 wind up with 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.
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 a leg where cheaper fares are still available.
When you shop for each flight separately, you can easily see the available options and the corresponding prices, so that you can pick the option with 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.
- Before you get started searching for an international ticket, make sure that the route doesn't still penalize one-way tickets. While 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, it is better to purchase your tickets as a complete trip, if you can. You should SEARCH for flights one-way at a time, but BOOK flights as a round trip (when that is an option). The advantage of booking as a single trip is that if your plans change, you’ll pay less money on cancellation and change fees. So, if you don’t need to give up much in the way of price or convenience to book as a round trip, it is better to book it as a single reservation.
Use the best flight search tools
There is no single website that will always find the lowest possible price for your airplane tickets, 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 and Skyscanner can help find even lower fares. Momondo does the best overall job of searching small discount airlines that operate in other parts of the world. Google is 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. On routes where we expect that Google Flights may be missing some options on lower-cost foreign airlines, we make sure to check Momondo. We sometimes also use it, just before we are about to book our tickets, to see if we can get a slightly better price.
- 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 Momondo will include the flights in their listings, but they won’t directly show the ticket prices. Therefore, they never bubble up to the better flight options at the top of the list or show up in the low-price calendar, and are easy to miss. If you want to see the actual prices, you’ll need to click on the flight links, and visit the airline’s own website. For flights in the US, we find it easier to just check Southwest's website directly, after looking at our other options on Google Flights.
- If you’re flexible about where you want to go, you can use various tools to help find destinations that are currently available at good prices. Our favorite of these tools is Fareness.
The speed of Google Flights enables you to nearly painlessly check many different combinations of dates, airports, and routes.
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 additional energy, you can search it as well.
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. How to Find the Cheapest Date to Fly.
- 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 2 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. For some cities, like New York, you can shop with a single airline code (e.g. NYC), which searches all that city’s airports. However, for most destinations, if you want to uncover some additional options, you need to take advantage of the booking engine’s ability to search nearby airports, or manually enter each airport's code. For example, if you are flying to Chicago, you might want to manually search for flights to Milwaukee, or vise versa.
- When flying internationally, make sure to consider the new discount options, even if they don’t leave from your city. Over the past few years, a set of low-cost airlines have started flying between the US and Europe (and to some degree Asia). Their deals are good enough that it is often worthwhile to purchase a separate ticket to make your own way to one of their gateway cities. Like Southwest, you may need to visit the airline’s website directly to see what is available.
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 a single day at a time, 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 day, 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.
Fly when others don’t want to
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.
The best time to buy tickets
How far ahead of time you purchase 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 best time to buy domestic tickets is usually one to four months before you are going to fly. In most cases, tickets will tend go up as you get closer to the travel dates, especially when you get within the final three weeks. However, if you book too far out, the airlines haven’t bothered to start pricing tickets aggressively yet. For summer travel, try to book by the middle of May.
- If you are buying for the holidays, earlier is often better. Prices usually start going up much sooner. However, the very best rates are available only about a month before each holiday, when airlines unload their unsold inventory. But that’s risky. If flights have gotten full, there may be no reasonably priced options left.
- You are sometimes better purchasing international tickets further ahead-of-time. Historically about three to six months out was a good window for long-haul flights. However, recent competitive turmoil often results in airfare sales closer to the departure date. Prices may wind up going down or they might just keep creeping up. So, it is a bit of a gamble. On the other hand, for most ultra-cheap airlines, ticket prices will often start out cheap, and just keeping going up, the longer you wait.
- Check the Google Flights calendar to see that farther-out flights aren't still artificially high. If the airline hasn't bothered to competitively price seats in future months, you'll notice that the prices for future months are consistently higher than for closer-in months. In that case, waiting will usually result in lower fares. If the fares are only higher in the few days around your trip, that is likely the result of higher demand for your specific dates. You need to look at the month as a whole. Try to use the filters to eliminate airlines or flights you wouldn't take or to focus only on a flight or flights you are interested in, so that the calendar reflects the prices for the actual flights you want.
- You can rely on a Price Prediction Tool to decide when to buy, but they don't work that well. Airfare Price Prediction Tools can use much more sophisticated algorithms to determine whether you should book right away, or wait till later. But airline behavior is constantly changing, so while these tools are probably better than nothing, they aren't always right. Use Airfare Prediction Tools to Determine the Right Time to Buy Airline Tickets.
- Set up a flight alert to decide when to pull the trigger. You'll get a notification whenever the price for your tickets drops. Flight alerts are built into Google Flights. Just look for the option on the flight result page.
- Contrary to what you might have heard, there isn’t a magical time during the week to purchase tickets. Airlines are now adjusting inventory and prices on a continuous basis, and there is no time during the week that has consistently lower pricing. Just shop when it is convenient for you. You might read that average ticket prices are cheaper on the weekends, but that is a statistical by-product of more leisure and less business flights being bought during those times.
Try to use the filters to rule out flights you aren't interested in. Google will only notify you about the cheapest flight available for the search criteria. You want to make sure to be alerted about a lower price on an acceptable flight.
If there are still a few months left before you fly, there is a good chance that the fares will wiggle up and down rather than just going up. Maintaining a flight alert for a week or two may help you purchase at a temporarily lower price.
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 additional fees. 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.
- 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 your different flight options. 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 option.
If you need to make a change in your plans, some sites will charge you an additional 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.
More advanced strategies for spending less on your airfare
Shopping for one way flights, using the right websites, being as flexible as possible, and trying to buy when the tickets are priced relatively low are the first steps towards saving money on your airplane tickets. But, there are many additional strategies that can help you uncover even better fares.
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