Finding the cheapest airfare can be a bloodsport for some people. They love leaping into the different third-party travel sites, pitting one against the other, searching and researching at different hours of the day, all in that quest to find the cheapest airfare possible for their next vacation.
Of course, it’s as much a science as an art, and sometimes a bit of luck, but remember what Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”
So if you’re prepared, and you have the right tools, you can find the cheapest airfare for your next trip when you search at the right time. Here are some of the things you should do.
First, think long term. You’ve probably heard the rumor that Tuesdays are the best time to book the cheapest airfare. Turns out that’s completely false, at least according to a Skyscanner report. There’s only a $4 difference between all the days in the week. Instead, Travel and Leisure says that you’re better off looking at ticket prices weeks or even months in advance, regardless of the day or time.
Flights open for booking about a year in advance, and the prices will change often between now and then, so pick your date as soon as possible and look at the initial ticket price. Establish that as your baseline.
Be flexible in your departure. Sometimes. There are certain times of year that are always going to be expensive and you’re not going to get great discounts (Thanksgiving, Christmas/Chanukkah, Spring Break, etc.). Other times of the year, like in the off-season (January and February, September after Labor Day, May before Memorial Day), you’re more likely to find the cheapest airfare.
Of course, if you have to travel during peak times, then book out your flight as far as possible. Otherwise, you may be able to find some decent prices just a couple of weeks in advance. Just start looking for your travel dates on fare watching sites a couple of months in advance. (More on those in a minute.)
Otherwise, know your schedules. According to the 2021 CheapAir.com annual airfare study, the Prime Booking Window for cheapest airfare is 95 to 121 days in advance.
Most people want to buy in this zone since most of us have budget as our main factor for purchasing flights. The Prime Booking Window is where you want to be if budget takes precedence in your decision-making. Every year, this booking zone consistently yields the lowest prices for travelers (within 5% of the lowest ticket price). You’re probably going to trade in some of that choice we mentioned earlier, but if cost is the main consideration, this is where you want to buy.
Just remember, these are general trends. CheapAir says the prices will trend downward until you hit the Push Your Luck zone, which is 20 to 14 days in advance. Inside this time, the prices will most likely go back up and your choices are limited. “This is a zone best left to gamblers,” they said in their 2021 study.
If you’re booking international travel and want to find the cheapest airfare, CheapAir says the best time to buy is around 69 days in advance for the Caribbean, 68 days for Central America, 80 days for South America, and 120 days for Europe.
Travel & Leisure says that the best time to book your domestic travel is between six months and two weeks, which, yes, that’s a big window, but the pricing can fluctuate in both directions, so if you spot a good deal within that time zone, book it immediately.
Next, let technology do all the work. Use Google Flights or Hopper to track price changes, and notify you when a particular flight has reached its lowest price. We especially like Hopper because, as their website says, “Hopper predicts future flight and hotel prices with 95% recommendation accuracy and notifies you the instant there’s a deal.”)
Save your points. If you can, join a loyalty club for a single airline, or all of them for that matter. But then start saving points any way you can for your favored airline. Get a credit card and use it for your regular purchases — buying groceries, paying bills, etc. _ and then pay the credit card bill with the money you would have used for those purchases. Once you rack up the points, you can purchase your tickets for free (assuming you don’t hit a major blackout date, like around the Thanksgiving holiday).
Go at the last minute! For some of us, this is a terrible way to plan a vacation. For others, they love the spontaneity of it all. Subscribe to sites like GoLastMinute.com or Fly.com’s last-minute travel section. Even third-party travel sites have last-minute ticket prices. Subscribe to a few of those and wait for low ticket prices to hit your inbox. When you find, say, a $99 ticket from St. Louis to Washington DC, book it and leave that next morning. Be willing to take whatever flight becomes available and go wherever the winds — and random chance — take you. Just make sure you can get a hotel before you actually book it.
Don’t skip the travel insurance though! Finding the cheapest airfare is important if you’re traveling on a budget and don’t want to waste any money. But don’t do your cost-cutting around travel insurance. Normally we wouldn’t mention travel insurance in an article about saving money, but I wanted to bring it up in case you have to cancel your flight as a result of COVID or other issues. If you or a family member gets sick or has to cut a trip short because of illness, you don’t want to waste all that money. The airlines and hotels will not give you a refund because of your illness. Pick up some travel insurance that will cover trip cancellation as well as medical care in case something goes wrong. That way, you won’t be out all the money you did spend.
How do you find your cheapest airfare? What techniques and sites do you use? Do you have any special tricks you could share with us? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or on our Twitter stream. You can also find us on our Instagram page at @TravelproIntl.