Everything you need to know about buying airfares as cheaply as possible, in 500 words or less

February 27, 2010
Fares from Washington DC:

    Look, I know you’re busy and have other stuff to read today, so I will keep this brief.




    If I could tell you just one thing, it would be this: sign up for free airfare alerts. Time and again, I see articles whose main point is to crown one search engine—Kayak, or Travelocity, or Momondo or whatever—as the best bet to find a low fare. But usually, the price differences in these “bake off” comparisons are small potatoes, if they exist at all, because all airfare sites pretty much use the same fare data provided by the airlines. That said, meta search engines such as Kayak and Tripadvisor.com/flights will do a better job at finding the relatively few fares that the airlines sell only on their own sites.

    There is no one “magic bullet” airfare search site!   The only sites that perform better on international fares are those selling “consolidator” fares, but these often come with caveats and extra restrictions, such as “miss your flight and you have to buy a whole new ticket” (you get what you pay for).

    The big savings come from realizing that airfares can have wild and sudden swings, like stocks on the S&P 500. You may not have time to check them hour-by-hour or day-by-day, but airfare-tracking sites do, and will alert you when a fare goes down, sometimes by hundreds of dollars, either to a level you specify or by a percentage amount.

    So sign up, it’s free! Some alert systems require that you first search for a fare before they’ll offer free email alerts; others let you sign up before searching. Here are some sites that offer alerts:

    Don’t just sign up for one, because they all work a bit differently. Be aware that most don’t include Southwest Airlines fares or promo code fares (airfarewatchdog.com does, although it tracks far fewer routes than the others listed above).

    And do sign up for the airlines’ frequent flyer programs and email alerts. They’ll often send out promo code and airline-site-only fare deals.

    Also, if you’re searching on your own, do not forsake online travel agencies! Way too often I hear people exclaim, “I only buy directly from the airline sites.” But what if you can save $100 by flying out on Delta and back on United? Who’s going to tell you this? Delta? United? Not a chance.   Travelocity, Orbitz, Cheap Tickets, Expedia and other online travel agencies are going to tell you this.   

    You already know that being flexible in your travel dates saves money. Problem is, most people are not flexible in their travel dates. Even so, Travelocity, Hotwire, Cheaptickets, and Orbitz have the best flexible date search functions (check out this helpful chart).

    Is there a magic day to buy? A lot of sales pop up on Monday night and Tuesday, but the fare you’re looking for could go down at any moment, so if you just search once a week on Tuesday, you’re missing out.

    Traveling at the last minute? You usually have two options: pay through the nose, or use Priceline.com or Hotwire.com.  Priceline’s name your own price feature is a super way to snag a good last minute fare.

    Oops, that was more than 500 words, but just by a bit. One more tip: keep your seatbelt fastened whenever you’re in your seat and you’ll enjoy your fare savings even more.

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