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.

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Guest's picture

to check Kayak, and it doesn't hurt to ask around in your circle of friends if anyone works for an airline. Airline employees get a certain # of very lowcost tickets a year that they can give out to family and friends,. really, anyone they want. I have two relatives who work for an airline and both regularly do this, giving away tickets to folks they don't even know...but they were a friend of a friend and that was good enough for them. Along those same lines...I am still looking for a friend of a friend who works for Disney..they can get you in the Disney theme parks....free.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the article, Im about to travel and needed information like this!

Guest's picture

I've used this technique a number of times with hotels too. One time I was in upstate New York and needed a place to crash, so I used Hotels.com and found what I thought was a great price. Then the concierge told me when I checked in she could have given me an additional $15 off if I had called directly. I have ever since and it's amazing the deals the hotels have that they don't publish.

Guest's picture

I disagree with #1.

I used to work for usairways.com and I know for a fact that the prices on the airlines websites are cheaper 99% of the time. When you are comparing prices between expedia.com and usairways.com, the prices are probably the same, but when you finally purchase your ticket, there is usually a variance of about $10 in the "additional fees" section that you pay. This is used as an incentive by the airlines to book through their online system as it is the cheapest way for them to sell tickets.

This is also true for calling the airline directly. If you call US Airways directly and purchase a ticket, it will cost you $10 more than if you buy it on usairways.com.

Guest's picture

Great article! I just wished that I could find a secret to finding really cheap airfare. I love traveling, but the cost of getting there is often the thing that holds me back. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to get great deals all the time.

Guest's picture

I worked for a reputable international airlines for years - so I thought I put in my two cents.

The key in finding the cheapest fare for a domestic destination (this includes Canada, most of the time) - is how far ahead you purchased your ticket. This would definitely need a good, firm plan. For example, if you know for sure you're going from San Francisco to Chicago this summer, feel free to purchase your ticket now. Opt for the most restricted ticket, which will give you the cheapest fare - yet, also be prepared for 'no changes allowed' restrictions, i.e. no changes to your travel plan or you'll loose your money. Going to the airline's website will give you the best price, most of the time.

Whereas for overseas travels, when and what airline will determine how much your fare is going to cost you. If you don't have to be in a certain place at a certain period of time, then by all means, avoid high/peak season (i.e. holidays, summer/winter holiday). Travel during off peak season would save you hundreds of $. Choosing which airlines to fly with is also another key. You get what you pay - that's for sure. If you don't really care about inflight service, what kind of food they serve on the flight, then save some $ by flying a '2nd class' international airlines. Make sure you call different travel agents and ask for their quotes, as well as go to the airline's website and look for their off-peak season deals.

Guest's picture

Southwest airfares do not appear on the search engines. If you know well in advance about your travel date or if you are flexible, you should check southwest.com before you buy your tickets through any search engine website. Sometimes jetblue.com also has good deals.

Guest's picture

The best part about Southwest is that if you change your flight itinerary, they don't charge you a fee - you just pay the difference in the airfares (I used this when I had booked a $99 flight from Houston to Las Vegas, but later found a $114 flight straight from San Antonio the week before Christmas). If you don't mind the lack of plane food (who WOULD?), Southwest is a great option, and their prices aren't generally too bad either. They frequently have airfare sales also, which I have delivered to my inbox, which is how I discovered my Christmas deal! :o)

The downside is that if the flight costs LESS, you can rarely if ever get your money back, and I think you have to go through some ridiculous process to try to get any of it back!

David DeFranza's picture

Indeed, the airline employee discount is the holy grail of the discount airfare quest. I have never been fortunate enough to get one, but I am still dreaming.

It is true that agents, whether a site like expedia or you local travel office, will charge a fee. I also agree that, if the price was otherwise the same, the ticket would be cheaper over if booked the airline's website as compared to the phone. When I recommend calling an airline it is to ask for fares that are not listed on a website because they are too much of an inconvenience for the average customer. Not every airline has a deal like this, but as I said, the savings if they do are significantly greater that $10.

Southwest does have some excellent deals. It is the perfect example of a regional airline that does not list its fares in the major national database.

Thanks for all the comments everyone!

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