By Jim Ferri
If you’re looking forward to taking a vacation this spring or summer, now is the time to start planning. That’s especially true if you want to save money on your airline tickets.
You may have heard of other travelers buying tickets at reduced prices. Sometimes they’ve paid a lot less than what you’ve paid in the same class on the same flight.
And, of course, you’ve likely wondered just how do they do it?
There’s no mystery to it. In fact, you can do it yourself – you just need to know a few tricks.
When booking your next vacation flights use these tricks and you, too, can be the envy of your fellow travelers.
1) Forget Brand Loyalty
You may have your favorite airline that you always try to fly. But if you’re serious about cutting flight costs, forget brand loyalty and shop all the carriers.
New carriers that have entered the American market are now offering substantial fare savings on flights to Europe. These low-cost carriers include Norwegian and Wow, which have offered economy fares as low as $99 to Europe. Norwegian is currently selling one-way fares from small U.S. cities to Europe for $65 one way. If you’d rather fly business class look to La Compagnie. It offers all-business-class flights between Newark and Charles de Gaulle in Paris at fares well below those of other carriers.
2) Choose Your Dates and Times Carefully
Carefully choosing your travel dates can provide some bargains. For example, late January and early February, are usually good times to travel if you want to snare a bargain. Likewise, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years days and eves. You’ll also, of course, want to avoid school holiday periods while traveling to popular places. That includes the heavily traveled summer season when places like Disney World are bursting at the seams.
Also, consider the time of day since few people like to fly on a redeye or early in the morning. That’s why you’ll usually find the greatest bargains at those times.
3) Be Flexible
First and foremost, you’ll enjoy the greatest savings if you can be flexible as to where you’ll vacation. Come up with a budget for your airfare and use such tools as Google Flights, Adioso or Kayak’s Explore. You enter your budgeted airfare, and each will show you all the destinations you can reach on that budget. They’ll also send you email alerts about good deals. Adioso sends alerts if you tell it something vague such as find a flight that “leaves Friday and returns Tuesday.”
4) Travel During the Shoulder Season
Time your travel during shoulder season when crowds are gone, prices drop a bit, and the weather is still good. Keep in mind, however, that “shoulder season” means different things in different places. In the Caribbean, for example, it is late spring and fall, the same as in Europe for non-skiers. In Bali, though, hotels are filled with Japanese in May and Australians in January, times reflecting those country’s vacation habits.
5) Double-Check Your Arrival Airport
Discount airlines pick out-of-the-way airports to keep their landing fees down, which helps keep their ticket prices down. But if you’re not careful, that can cost you plenty, unless you check your arrival airport.
Ryanair, for example, flies from London to Frankfurt, Germany, but it doesn’t land at the main Frankfurt airport. Instead, you’ll be brought to Hahn airport almost 80 miles away from Frankfurt. That’s closer to Luxembourg than Frankfurt, which could result in a pretty pricey taxi ride.
6) Check That “Package” Tab
On online travel agency (OTA) sites, including Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, many people spend time looking for the best deal. But they often don’t think about checking the cost of air- and hotel- package combination. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it can save a bundle, providing a discount on both airfare and hotel price. It can be quite a savings.
7) Don’t Just Search the OTA’s for Bargains
For some great values you won’t find with the large OTAs, also look at the packages offered by the airlines themselves. Check Southwest Vacations, United Vacations, American Airlines Vacations, and others. Also check smaller online agencies such as Gate 1 Travel and Apple Vacations for bargains.
8) Get Two Destinations for the Price of One
Two-for-ones aren’t only offered in the supermarket. Some airlines give you the option of a free stopover in a hub city when you’re en route to another country. On British Airways, for example, you’re often allowed a free stopover in London on your way to another destination.
9) Sign Up for Free Email Alerts
Receiving free email alerts from sites such as airfarewatchdog.com, Expedia and Travelzoo can provide a variety of money-savings options. You’ll not only learn when airfares drop, but you’ll also get early access to sale fares and flash sales.
The Hopper app from Hipmunk predicts the future cheapest price of your flight and sends a notification when to buy.
If you don’t want these alerts cluttering your inbox, just set up a unique email address on your computer. Then all such emails will be sent there.
10) Check for Last-Minute Packages
Booking a flight at the last minute can be quite expensive, but there’s an alternative – booking a vacation package that includes both flight and hotel, and sometimes a rental car.
Tour operators sometimes drop the cost of trips at the last moment to get some income from unsold packages. You’ll usually find the best on major online travel agencies sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity.
11) Timing Is Everything
When you’re looking at flight options on an airline’s website check the same flight on different days of the week (and different months if your vacation schedule permits). Often you’ll see that traveling on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday will provide real savings. That’s because fewer people fly on those days, often making the price difference to other days of the week substantial.
12) Put Your Airfare on Hold
You have the right to change/cancel your U.S. originating flight for free within 24 hours of booking. So when you find a good deal, make the purchase and then continue looking. If you find a better fair just don’t miss the 24-hour cancellation window at the other airline. The Consumerist has a good listing of the 24-hour cancellation policies of different domestic and foreign carriers.
If you find that your on-hold fare has dropped within that 24-hour window, some carriers will either charge the lower fare or refund the difference (although it may be in the form of the credit to use at a future time).
Also, remember that if you book on an OTA, your fare is not guaranteed until you complete the booking. Consequently, even if you book your ticket just one minute later, the price might have changed.
Travelocity allows cancellation with 24 hours of booking. On Expedia, if you find a lower price within 24 hours they will match it plus provide a $50 voucher. Orbitz will allow cancellation of some fares for free within 24 hours. Its rules, however, are a bit convoluted; check Orbitz Customer Service for a complete explanation.
13) Know How Far in Advance to Book
To get the best bang for your buck, you need to know how far ahead to start searching for deals. And there’s no one answer – it all depends on your destination.
If you’re off to Europe, start searching 20-25 weeks ahead, since that’s when prices generally begin to drop. For flights to Asia, it’s 36-40 weeks, Africa 12, the Caribbean 16-20, Central and South America 24. Within North America, you should begin searching 6-12 weeks in advance.
One caveat: for practically all destinations, prices rise substantially starting 30 days before departure.
14) Don’t Always Book the Cheaper Fare
Some of those rock-bottom fares on discount carriers can look awfully good. Just be aware they are rock-bottom because you have to pay for everything else.
Always do the math ahead of time and add the cost of seat selection, fees for checked bags, the cost to travel to your final destination from a different airport, etc. and it may wind up being not such a bargain after all.
If flying a discount carrier, reserve your seat online since some charge double if you choose it at the airport.
15) Use Several “Fare Finders”
There is a plethora of online tools for researching flights, each with its strength. Kayak Explore helps you determine how far your flight budget can take you; Google Flight Explore shows the best dates to fly; Expedia offers money-saving tips, and Momondo includes low-cost carriers.
Use them all to help you find the best deal possible.
16) Get Notified of Price Drops
If you discover the fare you purchased has dropped in price, some airlines may give you a refund if you request it, and often in the form of a credit. Others will not.
You can make life easier for yourself by using Yapta to book your airfare. The company tracks any price changes for your ticket and notifies you when there is one. Interestingly, Yapta will only alert you if the money you save on the new fare exceeds any airline-imposed change fees.
17) If Flying in A Group, Check As If Flying Alone
Airlines and travel sites sell tickets at the same price for everyone on a reservation. Consequently, that means if two seats are available for $100 each for a group of three, and a third for $200, all three will be charged $200 each. In fact, you won’t even know that cheaper seats are available.
The way around this is to make one reservation at a time. That way you can get as many lower-price fares as possible.
18) Look Overseas
Here’s an extreme tip to try to cut your costs to the bone. To ensure that you do get the best price go to an international airline’s foreign site, preferably its home country. By changing your “home country” to that country, you’ll see your flight then listed in the local currency. Then go online and find out the conversion rate and do the math. Sometimes the difference will be negligible, at other times quite a bit. Just be certain the credit card on which you put the ticket doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees.