How To

Save on Airfare: How to Find Cheap Flights to Your Dream Destination

Flying is tough these days, from flight delays and cancellations to exorbitant airfares. If you’re looking to get your travel fix after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Budget flights are a thing of the past since the peak of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to save money when planning your dream vacation. Here are some tips that can help you find cheap plane tickets.

1. Compare flights

google flights

Google Flights (credit: PCMag)

Not sure which airline to fly? Services like Google Flights(Opens in a new window)Skyscanner(Opens in a new window)and Momondo(Opens in a new window) compare flights and prices between airlines. Meanwhile, sites like Kayak(Opens in a new window)Expedia(Opens in a new window)and Orbitz(Opens in a new window) are online travel agencies (OTAs) that allow you to book directly through their websites.

However, lower prices through OTAs have some trade-offs, such as having to go through their customer service teams for any changes, some of which may incur additional charges. In many cases you can cancel within 24 hours, but not always. Normally, this rule only applies to tickets purchased at least seven days in advance. If you’re booking outside the United States or through an OTA, be sure to double-check the cancellation policy.

If you are under the age of 26, StudentUniverse(Opens in a new window) offers cheap travel bookings for students. The site also has a deal with Amazon(Opens in a new window) where Prime Student members can get up to 10% off flights — plus 10% back on hotels as an Amazon gift card after your trip.

Unfortunately, the “trick” to avoid inflated prices by browsing incognito or deleting your cookies is a myth(Opens in a new window).

2. Know when to buy

a spiral bound calendar set against a pink background

(Credit: Getty Images/Nora Carol Photography)

What is the best day to buy plane tickets? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.

“If you shop for flights on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday instead of Saturday or Sunday, prices have been only 1.9% cheaper on average over the past five years,” according to the Google Flights team that recently analyzed(Opens in a new window) historical air ticket data for five years.

“So if your trip is just a few weeks away, don’t wait for Tuesday to roll around — book your flight now in case the price goes up,” says Google.

Most of us know that the further out you can buy your tickets, the cheaper they will be. But how long should you wait? Google determines the best seat from 21 to 60 days before your flight, “with average prices bottoming out 44 days before departure,” it says.

This is not always true at peak travel times. If you’re traveling on Thanksgiving, consider purchasing at least 36 to 74 days before departure; prices typically hit their lowest point 52 days before Bird Day, Google says.

“For domestic travel around Christmas, the lowest average prices were 22 days before departure, but this may be lower,” according to Google. “Prices have tended to drop somewhere between 20 and 88 days before departure.”

Here are some basic rules for other popular departure times and destinations:

  • Spring Break (March/April): 23-59 days before departure; lowest at 38 days out.

  • Summer vacation (July/August):14-44 days before departure, lowest at 21 days out.

  • Flight from USA to Europe: The earlier the better. Consider booking 129 days before departure; the lowest rates are somewhere between 50 and 179 days.

  • Flights from the US to Mexico or the Caribbean: 37 and 87 days before departure; low 59 days out.

3. Fly budget airlines (but watch out for fees)

two different Spirit Airlines planes on the airport runway

(Credit: Gillian Kane/Getty Images)

Flying on budget airlines like Frontier, Southwest, Spirit or RyanAir can test your patience(Opens in a new window)but they are a great way for budget travelers to save a few hundred dollars on airfare.

The most important thing to keep in mind when booking with budget airlines is that they usually make their money through hidden fees. Amenities like food and beverage, seat selection, checked bags, and sometimes even carry-on bags often come with additional fees. These fees can vary greatly from airline to airline, so be sure to read the fine print carefully.

For example Nerdwallet(Opens in a new window) estimates that the average passenger can expect to pay about $25 in surcharges on Southwest, which doesn’t even charge checked bags. Meanwhile, you can expect to pay about $100 for Spirit or Frontier, which allow passengers to carry a personal item for free that fits under the seat in front of them. All other bags will incur a fee. Need more than 28 inches of legroom on the Spirit? That would be $60 for 36 inches(Opens in a new window) of space.

You can avoid most budget fees by only taking hand luggage and skipping the selected seat. In addition, some airlines offer credit cards(Opens in a new window) which allow passengers to avoid certain charges.

4. Avoid weekend departures

google flight calendar

The real savings come when you are flexible about which day of the week you leave. According to Google, “flights departing on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday were 12% cheaper than weekend departures.” Excluding international destinations, savings can reach 20%, it said. Google Flights has a calendar user interface that allows you to quickly get an overview of price differences.

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5. Embrace the break

google map for flights

If you have time to spare while traveling to your destination, you can often save some money by forgoing direct flights. “On average, direct flight prices are 20% higher than connecting flights,” says Google. For example, if you’re going to Amsterdam but flights are too expensive, it might be cheaper to fly to a city like Stockholm and then take a budget flight to Amsterdam.

Rome2Rio(Opens in a new window) is a great resource for aggregating different flights to find the cheapest option. Travelers select a starting location and destination, and the site will display various routes by plane, train, bus, car or ferry, along with the estimated cost and travel time. Filter the fastest options and you may find a combination that works better than a direct flight.

Google Flights also has an excellent Explore feature that lets you see flights around the world, with the cheaper ones standing out.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to a specific city, consider flying to airports that are further away from the main city. Just double check that there are public transport options available to your destination so you don’t end up with a hefty taxi bill.

6. Receive notifications

Google flight price tracking feature

Most travel sites will let you set up alerts that will tell you when flight prices change. In Google Flights, switch Price tracking for each route or flight you wish to book.

There are also numerous newsletters from airlines and travel websites such as Thrifty Traveler(Opens in a new window)Airfarewatchdog(Opens in a new window)and Dollar Flight Club(Opens in a new window) which may notify you of transactions. For price, sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights(Opens in a new window) it can also notify you when there are erroneous fares – extremely low fares caused by airline errors – which can lead to amazing deals if you act quickly.

With the tips above, you can plan your dream vacation without breaking the bank. Don’t forget to use points you may have accumulated through your credit cards or previous trips and take the financial stress out of traveling.

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