Updated: Our best tips for finding low airfares

George Hobica, August 15, 2009
Fares from Washington DC:

    You already know that traveling on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday will save you money on air travel, and that connecting flights are often cheaper than nonstops. And you know that airlines raise fares for travel during peak holiday periods and for last minute travel. And that when shopping you should check fares from all airports that are a short drive from your nearest airport. But Airfarewatchdog.com has gathered some additional advice that might save you money next time you're shopping for a plane ride.   

    Check fares often

    Because airfares fluctuate like the stock market, you need to check them every day, or better still several times a day, if you're serious about saving money. Airlines can update domestic fares three times a day during the week, and once on Saturday and Sunday (international fares tend not to change as often, but can be updated up to 5 times daily). Also, even if the fare itself hasn't changed, seat availability at the lowest fares can change, so there might be just one seat available at 10 a.m., but the airline will open up more cheap seats later in the day.

    Try a flexible fare search

    If you're at all flexible, you can sometimes save hundreds by adjusting your travel dates. Travelocity will search most domestic fares and many international ones over a 330 day search period; Orbitz and Hotwire cover nearly all routes from the US, but only over 30 day periods. Southwest.com also has a good flexible date search tool. See this article for the low down on flexible date searches with some handy step-by-step instructions.

    Sign up for the airlines' email feeds and frequent flyer programs

    Yes, we know, you already get too much email, but the airlines want to develop a one-on-one relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50% off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up. Airline sites sell much more than airfares these days (hotels, rental cars, credit cards and such), and they will entice you to deal direct rather than use a third party site such as Orbitz. Here are links to US domestic airline sign up pages and for international sign ups. If you're on Twitter, you might also want to follow the airlines' tweets, which they're using to promote exclusive Twitter-only deals. We signed up for Virgin America's frequent flyer program and because we haven't flown them yet we keep on getting promo code discount offers to give them a try.

    Sign up for fare free alerts

    Many airfare web sites offer these, and they all have something to offer. Yapta.com lets you track your specific itinerary, down to the flight number and dates of travel, and will let you know if the airline owes you a price-drop refund. Travelocity's easy-to-use FareWatcherPlus lets you track up to ten routes and you can choose to be notified either when a fare goes down by $25 or more, or when it goes below a price you choose. Orbitz and Kayak also offer alerts, as does Bing Travel. But since all of these sites use the same airfare data provided by the airlines' computer systems, they won't include discounted promo code fares, and most don't include Southwest Airlines. Airfarewatchdog continues to be the only fare alert service that includes individual promo code fares (route by route) and fares on Southwest and Allegiant, as well as on some other smaller carriers.

    Search airline sites individually

    Some airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code fares. Airfarewatchdog fare searchers often find lower fares on JetBlue.com, even without discounts such as a recent system-wide 20% off promo code, than on third-party sites. International airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Qantas regularly offer lower fares (i.e., $100-$400 less) on their own web sites compared to what you'll find on Kayak or Orbitz.

    Sign up for Ding Fares

    Southwest offers frequent "Ding" deals that pop up on your computer that can save a few bucks off their already low fares. A couple of years ago, American launched something similar which used to generate frequent promo code discounts, but we haven't seen many good deals from them lately.

    Buy hotel + air packages

    It's often significantly cheaper to buy an air plus hotel package rather than airfare alone. We often see Travelocity "TotalTrip" offerings, especially on last minute flights, pop up with hotel plus air for half the price of air alone. Lastminute.com is also a great source for finding last minute packages.

    Use Priceline for last minute trips

    If you don't have a 7, 14, or 21 day advance purchase window to buy your fare, your best bet is the "name your own price" feature of Priceline.com. True, you won't know the exact flight times or airline you're flying until to pay for your trip, but you can save 50% or more.

    Use consolidators for international business and first class fares

    Especially with the economic downturn, business and first class cabins will be emptier in 2009, and deals will be amazing. Consolidators specializing in premium cabins will have some great deals, and the airlines themselves will be heavily discounting their premium cabins, so check the specials on their web sites. Do a google search for "first class consolidators" to see some of the firms in this space.

    Consider the extra fees before you buy

    If Southwest has a fare of $198 round-trip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest actually has the lowest fare because Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, whereas United would charge you an additional $165 each way for three. You can find baggage fee charts here.

    Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare

    If you're flying to a destination in Europe, you might save money by purchasing one fare from the US to, say, Dublin, and another from Dublin onward. Same holds true for some destinations in Asia (fly into Singapore and catch a low cost carrier from there) and to some smaller Caribbean destinations via San Juan or the Bahamas.

    Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down

    Let's say you've found the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare for the same itinerary goes down. If you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference. But some airlines will charge you a costly "administrative" fee of $150 or more, wiping out any savings. Others will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee. Currently, the "nice" airlines are JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska.

    Don't listen to airfare pundits who predict airfares

    Look, we all want our pictures in the paper and on the TV. But airlines are unpredictable creatures, and any airfare expert who claims he knows that airfares will be lower or higher in the coming months is just trying to snag some publicity. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading, any more than we can predict the stock market, because we have no idea when the economy will approve, or how much airlines will cut back capacity, or when the next flu epidemic will hit. If we could, we'd all be comfortably retired in Margaritaville by now!

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