Welcome to the cheap airfare guide at Bargaineering. This guide seeks to help you find out how to get the cheapest airfare from each of the various major and budget airlines. It will tell you the tips and tricks you will need to make the most of your traveling dollar.
Pre-Step: Signup for Travel Newsletters
You should sign up for Travelzoo and Dunhill Travel newsletters. They are free, don’t spam you, and send you weekly deals targeted to your home area. Travelzoo has a well-known “Top 20” deals email that goes out weekly as well as “breaking news” types of sales for your stated home airports. Dunhill does the same thing and both are free.
Step 1: Check major travel search sites
This will give you a baseline from which to compare prices and times where fares are available. You should also try alternate dates if flexibility exists in your itinerary.
Step 2: Patience is Golden (and Green!)
Now you have a general idea for how much it will cost for you to fly to where you want to go and when you want to go. Usually airlines will let their customers know, via their website or their mailing list, what flights are on sale on a regular basis. Below is a list of when airlines usually (but not always) announce their sales.
- Mondays – Delta
- Tuesdays – Orbitz, Southwest, United
If you don’t like the waiting game, here is the typical schedule for most airlines:
- 4-6 weeks: 4 – 6 weeks prior to the trip date is when you’ll find the greatest savings. More than that and the airlines aren’t dropping prices because they aren’t thinking that far ahead (unlike cruises where they think months in advance).
- 2 weeks: According to most sources, two weeks is when they jack up the prices. If you don’t want to wait for last minute deals (because you dropped major dollars on a hotel or whatnot) then you must get the flight before the two week window. You will see prices jump significantly.
- 1 week: You thought they went up at the two week mark? They go up even more now. You might as well wait for last minute at this point unless you really want that ticket and you can’t afford not to go.
- 3 days: Typically under three days is last minute free for all. If it’s not booked now, they try to get it booked. You may get yourself a good deal at this point, or the flight may be (over)booked and you’re hosed.
My personal ideal strategy? If it’s domestic, then scour the bargain emails sent out by bargain carriers like Southwest, Airtran, or Independence Air for good deals up until that two week cutoff. Then snatch one up…
Step 3: Choosing Travel Dates
Choosing when to fly can save you big bucks as well, if you have flexibility then you can fly during off-peak periods where airlines reward you with lower fares for packing your butt in an empty seat. Consider the following:
- 12pm Monday to 12pm Thursday are the best days of the week to travel. Fewer crowds, cheaper fares. fares. Can’t beat it. Why? Well all the vacationers travel on the weekends, typically depart on a Friday and return on a Sunday.
- Saturday when it’s not the summer is pretty good too. The reason is because on the typical vacation pattern, Saturday is spent at the destination and not travelling. The other days are packed with vacationers going away for the weekend.
- Holidays: Each holiday period has a different traffic pattern. Typically a day before the holiday period extending to the Sunday afterwards is the accepted holiday period and the head and tail of that period are out of contention for cheap fares.
- Thanksgiving: Wednesday before Turkey Day is when everyone flies home. The corresponding Sunday is when everyone flies back. If you can squeeze yourself in any other day, you can score a cheap flight. Take a red-eye on Monday back and watch the fare drop.
- Winter Break: Essentially the four days before Christmas are heavy traffic and little money can be saved. This will last until New Years (or if it’s near a weekend, the Sunday). Again, try to make it out before or after that.
- Spring Break: This is more of a locational issue because Spring Break season (basically March) packs all the hotspot destinations. Valentine’s Day does the same thing.
- Seasonal: Each destination has peak and off-peak periods where you can snag cheaper flights, cheaper hotel rooms and cruises. For example, cruises are dead before Christmas so you can get a great cruise then.
Step 4: Booking
In general, book your flight at least 14 days from when you are departing because almost like clockwork the fare will go up at 12:01AM the 14th day. Book at the airline you end up choosing because you may get a bonus just for using their site plus you will save the service fee charged by Expedia or Travelocity or any of the other search sites.
Step 5: Seat Selection
This is done the day of the flight when you’re checking in. You will want to use SeatGuru.com to educate you on the actual seat characteristics of each airline’s planes. It’s a wonderful site that will tell you what seats don’t recline and what seats are just plain uncomfortable.
Southwest Customers: Southwest has a special first come first served seating policy. Depending on when you check-in, you are assigned a group (A, B, C, or special seating) based on the time you arrive and special circumstances (elderly and those with chidlren get special treatment). Then at the gate you line up in the appropriate line and the seating is first come first served. Flight popularity dictates how early you need to arrive to secure an A but in most cases, you can get a good seat if you’re as bad as a B but near the first half of the line.