Travel plans can quickly become expensive, making budget vacations extremely desirable. But such trips aren’t possible if you pay too much for airfare. And unless you know where to look, finding cheap flights can be a huge hassle. “For the airlines, it’s about getting you to pay the most you’re willing to pay, which is the opposite of what the consumer wants,” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel website JoeSentMe.com. On a single flight, he adds, there can be more than a dozen pricing categories. “On a 150-seat plane, there could be 50 different prices,” he says.
Plus, Brancatelli adds, each of those passengers may be paying for a different array of a la carte add-ons such as priority boarding or baggage fees. “The key thing to know about airline prices,” he says, “is that the fare is where you start, not where you finish.”
With summer right around the corner, U.S. News spoke to Brancatelli and other travel industry experts about the best ways to stretch your travel budget. Here are seven insider secrets to booking cheap flights:
Book seven weeks in advance. Passengers pay the lowest price, nearly 10 percent below the average fare, if they buy 50 days before their flight, according to data from the Airlines Reporting Corporation. The data was compiled by examining 2017 ticket sales from online and corporate travel agencies in the U.S. for the top 500 origin-and-destination markets. But the seven-week rule isn’t necessarily a surefire strategy for snagging the cheapest fare. “This is just a trend,” explains Chuck Thackston, ARC’s managing director of data science and research. “Airlines will make valuable deals available all the time. But, on average, we see this [50-day] approach works.”
Fly out early. The cheapest flight is typically the first flight of the morning. “Yes, that means you have to get up at 4 a.m.,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. The next-cheapest flight times are during or after lunch or at the dinner hour. “There’s a general rule of thumb, which is ‘fly hungry,'” Seaney says. That’s because flyers tend to not want to travel at inconvenient or uncomfortable times, he says.
Check low-cost airlines individually. Comparison sites like Kayak.com don’t necessarily do all the work for you. Some low-cost airlines, like Southwest, don’t allow their tickets to be quoted on popular comparison websites, Seaney says. So be sure to check them separately. And do your homework to understand what extra charges, such as carry-on or checked baggage fees, might increase the cost of your ticket.
Build a relationship. “The question isn’t how much is it to fly from here to there, the question is, ‘Who’s asking?'” Brancatelli says. If you carry the airline’s credit card, you automatically have a leg up on other travelers. Credit cards tied to airlines now offer perks that were once standard, such as free checked bags, priority boarding and seat selection, so they may be worth signing up for if you fly frequently on one airline.