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 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. After reading this introduction, make sure to view our Step-by-Step Guide to Buying Airplane Tickets (Beginners).
- Shop for each part of your trip using one-way flights
- Shop on the right website
- Be flexible with your dates (and airports)
- Fly when others don’t want to
- Make sure you’ve looked at what’s available on low-priced airlines
- Get the credit card for the airline you fly the most
- The best time to buy tickets
- Other basic tips
- 1 Shop for each part of your trip using one-way flights
- 2 Shop on the right website
- 3 Be flexible with your dates and airports (if you can)
- 4 Fly when others don’t want to
- 5 Make sure you’ve looked at what’s available on low-priced airlines
- 6 Get the credit card for the airline you fly the most (but don't use it for most of your spending)
- 7 The best time to buy tickets
- 8 Other basic tips
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 only real exception is for many 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 the a leg where cheaper seats 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.
Shop on the right website
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 routings. 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 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. When 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Make sure you’ve looked at what’s available on low-priced airlines
Some of the best airfare deals are from low-priced airlines, and fares from a few of these airlines don’t show up on most flight searching tools. It is usually worthwhile to check all your airline options. You could easily save significant amounts of money or find more convenient flight times or routes.
For example, Southwest Airlines is one of the four largest US airlines, offers competitively priced flights to over 100 cities, doesn’t charge for checked bags or flight changes, and doesn’t show up on most major travel sites. If you simply search on a site like Expedia, or even Google Flights, you won’t see whether Southwest offers a cheaper or more convenient option for your trip.
The good news is it is relatively easy to make sure you are covering all your options.
- Using Momondo is the best way to make sure you are searching almost every airline—we recommend always checking it for international flights. We’ve found that Momondo is the most exhaustive flight searching tool. It finds options on the largest number of airlines, and often finds the cheapest booking site to book the actual tickets. Simply using Momondo is the easiest way to make sure you uncover your discount airline options. If you are looking for cheap intra-European or intra-Asian flights, it is close-to-mandatory.
- If you are using Google Flights, you’ll need to make sure to click-through to see prices on Southwest and some other airlines. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- One additional potential downside: 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, you are often better off 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.
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.
Get the credit card for the airline you fly the most (but don't use it for most of your spending)
If there are one or two airlines that you frequently use, and you don’t already have elite status, you should get their co-branded credit card(s). This is one of the basic strategies that we recommend for everyone.
If you aren't already getting free access to airport lounges with the Sapphire Reserve card, you should also consider getting at least one card that does. Rather than waiting by the gate, you can wait for your flight in more comfortable chairs, taking advantage of free food, drinks, and Wi-Fi. Most premium credit cards provide access to over 1,000 airport lounges, at locations all over the world, through the Priority Pass program. The Amex Platinum cards includes these, as well as a bunch of additional lounges. The fees for these cards are high, but they come with other benefits and travel credits that partially offset these fees. Get Free Airport Lounge Access from a Credit Card.
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.
- 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.
Other basic tips
- 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.
- Another way to save money on multi-person trips is with a credit card that offers the "Visa Infinite Airfare Credit". There are only a few cards that provide this benefit, but they give you $100 back, every time you purchase round-trip, domestic, economy class airplane tickets for two or more people. For example, if you travel on these types of trips three times per year (and book through the Visa Infinite website), you'll get $300 back. Each of these cards has a very high annual fee, but comes with travel credits that can partially offset the annual cost, and other valuable benefits.
- 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. As discussed in our "Simple Plan", the Chase 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 Citi Prestige, Amex Gold, or Amex Platinum card to earn some additional reward points, even though they will miss out on the extra travel insurance benefits. 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, rather than selling you a mix of the remaining lower priced tickets and the additional higher priced ones. You’ll save money by splitting your reservation up, so that you can book at least some of your tickets at the lower rate.
- 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.
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.
If you are willing to spend considerably more time, you can sometimes find significantly lower fares. There are several creative strategies you can employ to uncover other routes, and drop the ticket prices you’ll pay. But they usually involve more time and effort and sometimes “bending” airline rules.
These strategies are covered more fully in our Advanced Strategies for Finding Cheaper Fares overview, as well as in individual articles focused on specific strategies. They are especially useful, when you are booking more expensive international and holiday flights.
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