Cheap Flights 101

Six sure-fire steps to scamming the lowest possible deal on airfare, along with other ways to the best airfare prices, period

Back in the Middle Ages of air travel, airlines used to publish their rates in telephone-book-sized compendiums updated every few weeks, and your trusty travel agent would actually get on the phone to reserve your seat. Nowadays, fares change as often as the weather in New England. The good news? Ever-evolving technology now lets airlines sell unused seats at the last minute at a variety of venues, producing some of the cheapest prices ever. The bad news? With a glut of information out there, finding these fares can be a bewildering, confusing, and downright frustrating experience.

“There is no magic formula for always finding the cheapest fares,” says Terrance Zepke, author of the Encyclopedia of Cheap Travel. “Comparison shopping is the name of the game.” But don’t take that to mean you should spend more time hunting for your vacation airfare than you’ll actually spend on vacation. We won’t lie to you; the world of inexpensive airfares is dog-eat-dog. But follow these efficient steps, learn some simple tricks, and with a little bit of luck, you will excel in sniffing out the best online airfare deals.

Your first step to airfare success is to determine the best time to buy your tickets. If you absolutely must get home to Mom for Thanksgiving—or to Courchevel before Lance passes through—the age-old advice still holds true: Buy your tickets at least three weeks in advance.

“I think most airline sources would agree that anything outside 21 days before takeoff is considered an advance-purchase ticket,” says Brian Ek of “Airlines are different, but generally, once you hit 15 days before the flight, the price begins to go up, then it goes up again at the seven-day mark. So if you want a retail ticket, buy it at least 21 days out for the best price.” Consider buying retail and buying early for vacation destinations during popular seasons or during high-traffic holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and spring break in March.

However, if your trip to Whistler can wait a weekend or Mom doesn’t mind you arriving on Thanksgiving day rather than the day before, consider changing your strategy. Timing when you fly is just as important as when you buy. Though airfares can be fickle and inconsistent, cheaper flights are typically available on weekdays, as opposed to weekends, and during non-rush hours. If you can’t avoid major holidays, like Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, national long-weekend holidays, and spring break periods in March, a good rule of thumb is to try to travel when everyone else doesn’t want to. Think Christmas Eve or day, Thanksgiving day or a week ahead of time. Besides, flying on a holiday is typically more relaxed—the airports and planes are usually less crowded, and the “we’re all in this together” atmosphere can lend to an easy-going travel experience.

Published: 15 Jun 2005 | Last Updated: 24 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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