3 Step Strategy To Airfare Deals
It's true, there are no secrets to finding a bargain ticket every time you fly. However, by understanding how the system works, you can ease some of the headaches involved and develop a simple strategy to yield the greatest deals. Let's take a look.
1. No Search Engine Is Better Than Any Other
The first thing you must accepted is that no fare search engine is the single best. They all do the best they can, but that isn't saying much. In fact, mathematicians have studied the problem (pdf file) and concluded that, while not impossible, it would take a computer over a billion years to find the cheapest fare possible for a given itinerary.
Another reason there can not be a single best is because all fare search engines in the United States, including the one in a travel agent's office, scan the same database using identical search algorithms. You can actually access this system directly, for free, from the company that designed it, using their Fare Shopping Engine . While you cannot buy tickets at this site, it will help when comparing the fares across multiple agents and engines by giving you the probable best price as a benchmark for comparison.
2. When You Fly Is The Most Important Factor
By knowing that no amount of search engine magic will find a better deal, we become free to look at our real options. The second thing we must accept is that the biggest savings on individual flights can be had by changing the time at which we travel. Flying off season, overnight, during the week (usually Tuesday or Wednesday), with a companion, to and from less popular or more inconvenient airports, and, usually, including more transfers in the itinerary, are all factors that commonly reduce a ticket's price.
Keep in mind that airlines can change their domestic fares up to three times a day. When they do this, it is at approximately 10 AM, 12:30 PM, and 8 PM eastern standard time, and once on the weekend at 5 PM. International fares can change once a day. It takes the search engines a few hours to respond to these changes.
A trend-based search engine is the best way to get a sense of when is cheap to fly. Farecast , which was recently reviewed on Wise Bread, and Farecompare search historical records of fares to give price trends for your itinerary. Air Fare Watch Dog is a great site that will email sales and alerts for a specific airport or route. While limited in scope, these services can help determine when the best time to buy a ticket might be.
If your itinerary is flexible, you have the luxury to choose the time and day that provides the cheapest ticket. If your schedule is more rigid, it is advisable to book your ticket either around a month in advance, or immediately before the flight, for the best price. While there is an availability gamble involved, the price usually reaches its lowest point in the last 24 hours before the flight.
3. Take Matters Into Your Own Hands
Remember that pinpointing the best fare is an impossibility. Once you have a good sense of the fares that are turning up in the database, contact the airline directly to ask if they can do any better. Be sure to ask if they have any special deals applicable to your specific route, as airlines will often give huge discounts to fliers willing to make an airport transfer, or use minor hubs.
An example of this is Air India, which gives huge discounts on the less popular trans-Atlantic leg of their flights to India. As another example, I used to consistantly save $100-200 flying to Europe by phoning the British Airways ticketing office and telling them I was willing to make the Heathrow to Gatwick transfer. Sadly, this deal is no more, but that does not mean that are not others like it waiting to be found.
Finally, most regional airlines do not use the national database of the larger airlines. As a result, using only internet search engines might miss some great deals on connecting flights. There is nothing stopping you from calling these airlines directly and piecing your itinerary together yourself.
Finding the cheapest ticket is never easy, but by understanding the system, and the motivations behind pricing, you can develop a strategy to consistently find a good deal.