1. There's no magic day or lead time to buy the best airfare
A lot of airfare experts think they're clairvoyant, so they know where airfares are headed or how far in advance you should start looking for a fare. Recently, some have claimed to buy exactly 54 days in advance. Others say buy on Tuesday at 3 p.m. or Wednesday at midnight or when Venus transits your 5th house (just kidding). But airlines are unpredictable, and anyone who claims he or she knows that airfares will be lower or higher in the coming months or the coming days should trade in their crystal ball. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading, any more than we can predict the stock market. Think about it: if they really knew, they'd put every other airfare search operation out of business, and that hasn't happened. Don't believe me? Here's what an airline revenue manager has to say about this.
2. So search often, over a long lead time, and pounce when there's a deal!
Fares fluctuate throughout the day, and the number of seats offered at the lowest fares also changes frequently. Or someone might be holding the only seat at the lowest fare and not book it, so it goes back into inventory where it can be snatched up by you. So if you don't like the fare at 10 a.m., check at 2 p.m. or the next day or the next week and pounce when the fare is affordable. It's easy to leave open the browser page where you're searching for a fare and keep on hitting the refresh. And of course, it always helps to peruse our Top 50 fare finds.
3. Airfare alerts by email
This is perhaps the easiest way to track airfares. Many travel web sites offer emailed airfare alerts, letting you know when fares go down, and they all have something to offer. Do a browser search for "airfare alerts" and you'll see what's available. They all work a bit differently so sign up for more than one.
One thing to note: these sites use essentially the same airfare data provided by the airlines' computer systems or ITA Software (which is now owned by Google), so they won't include discounted promo code fares, and they don't include Southwest Airlines (Airfarewatchdog does, however, include hand-picked fares on Southwest).
4. Sign up for the airlines' email feeds and frequent flyer programs
Speaking of promo codes, the airlines want to develop a relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50 percent off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up for their emails. Here are links to US domestic airline sign up pages and for international sign ups. We signed up for Virgin America's frequent flyer program and because we hadn't flown them yet we keep on getting promo code discount offers to give them a try.
5. Use Twitter
Email is great, but some of the most amazng airfare deals last only a short time (even if they're valid for travel over a long period), or you open the email too late. Twitter is more immediate. Our advice? Follow @Airfarewatchdog where we tweet unusual airfare deals every day of the week and alert followers to promo codes and other airfare deals.
6. Be flexible with those dates
If you don't care when you go as long as the fare is low, try a flexible date search. It's getting harder to search airfares based on flexible travel dates now that many sites (Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity and Expedia among them) have eliminated their flexible date calendars. But Kayak still has a good one. Another good site is Adioso, and Google has both Google Explore and Google Flights. More about flexible travel date search here.
7. Search airline sites individually, but online travel agencies are still useful
Many airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code sales mentioned above. 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. And yet, you shouldn't ignore online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity, because these sites will tell you if it's cheaper flying out on one airline and back on another (United won't tell you it's cheaper to fly out on United and back on American).
Related: what's the difference between online travel agencies and "meta search" airfare sites?
8. 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. 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.
9. Use consolidators, but beware of the restrictions
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. Sites like Momondo, Vayama, airfare.com, and Asia.com also sometimes sell consolidator fares, but read this to understand how these fares work and what the extra restrictions might be.
10. 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.
11. 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 on Ryanair (just beware of Ryanair's onerous fees). Same holds true for some destinations in Asia (fly into Singapore and catch a low cost carrier such as Airasia from there) and to some smaller Caribbean destinations via San Juan or the Bahamas. Even domestically, two fares are often less than one, such as the recent scenario where Dallas to Honolulu was selling for $350 round-trip with tax, but Houston/Honolulu was $800. As you're no doubt aware, you can fly Houston-Dallas for a lot less than $450! Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time between connecting flights in case one flight is delayed.
12. 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 $200 or more, wiping out any savings. Others will give you the entire fare difference in the form of a travel voucher without extracting a fee. All airlines used to do this but no longer. The only ones left are JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska.