Booking Airfare 101
If you simply do a basic flight search on a travel site like Expedia, there is a good chance that you will wind up paying too much for your airplane ticket. Finding the best flight options takes a little more effort. But, it isn’t that complicated, or time consuming. After reading this introduction, make sure to view our Step-by-step Guide to Buying Airplane Tickets.
- 1 Shop for each part of your trip using one-way flights
- 2 Shop on the right website
- 3 If you can, be flexible with your dates (and airports)
- 4 Fly when others don’t want to
- 5 Make sure you’ve looked at what’s available on low-priced airlines
- 6 Get the credit card for the airline you fly the most
- 7 The best time to buy tickets
- 8 Other basic tips
- 9 Additional tricks to save money
Shop for each part of your trip using one-way flights
Probably the most useful flight shopping advice is to shop for each part of your trip separately. Instead of searching for a round trip ticket, you should usually search for two separate one-way flights.
This is true, regardless of whether you want to spend just a few minutes searching for a flight, or whether you are going to spend more time creatively trying to uncover the best options for your trip. The only real exception is for many long-haul transcontinental flights, where round trip tickets are still priced more cheaply than two separate one-way flights.
- Shopping for one-way flights can save significant amounts of money. The cheapest tickets in each direction are often with different airlines. If you shop for a round trip ticket, the booking engine may not uncover the best flight combination. While sometimes a booking site will find and offer “hacker fares”, which combine one-ways on two different airlines, other times they won’t. Even when you are flying both flights with the same airline, they may charge you more for a round trip, or multi-city itinerary, than they would for the underlying one-way flights. When you search for one-way fares, you’ll see the underlying prices, and can make sure you are flying on the best possible combination of flights.
- Shopping for one-way flights makes it easier to understand the trade-offs between schedule and price for your trip. If you shop for one-way flights, it is much easier to understand the different flight option for each part of your trip, and choose the best combination of price and schedule. You can separately evaluate the flight options in each direction, in terms of its price and convenience.
When you shop for round trip flights, you’ll have to look through a gigantic list of round trip permutations, making it harder to understand the underlying flight options, and much harder to understand how choosing each flight will affect your final ticket price. For example, if there are 20 interesting options to fly to and from your destination, it is much easier to focus directly on those 20 options, rather than to try to make sense of the 400 possible round trip combinations.
The advantages are compounded, if you are checking different combination of travel dates. For example, if you are looking at 4 different departure and return days, it is easy to check one-way prices for the 8 different days, instead of looking at round trip prices for the 16 different combinations. The more options you want to consider, the more useful it is to look at each direction separately.
- Before you get started, make sure that it isn’t generally cheaper to purchase round trips to your specific destination. While most airline tickets are now priced simply as a combination of the underlying one-way flights, on some itineraries (particularly long-haul flights on legacy airlines), a round trip is still less expensive than purchasing two separate one-ways. A quick comparison search will let you know. If round trips are priced cheaper, you can still get an idea about relative pricing by looking at each one-way fare, but you’ll eventually need to deal with the extra complexities of shopping for round trips.
- Once you understand your flight options, it is better to purchase your tickets as a complete trip, if you can. You should SEARCH for flights one-way at a time, but BOOK flights as a round trip (if you can). The advantage of booking as a single trip, is that if your plans change, you’ll pay less money on cancellation and change fees. So, if you don’t need to give up much in the way of price or convenience to book as a round trip, it is worth it. Once you know which flights you want, you can often construct and book a round trip ticket with your preferred flight options on a 3rd party travel site like Expedia. Just enter the details into the round trip, or multi-city search tool, and narrow down the options using the flight times and airlines, until you’ve found the exact flights you wanted.
Shop on the right website
There is no single website that will always find the lowest possible price for your airplane tickets, but some websites are much better than others.
- We highly recommend using Google Flights to narrow down your options. Google Flights is blindingly fast, allowing you to rapidly experiment with different dates or alternative routings. The details of the experience are very well designed, and Google Flights includes fares from many lower cost carriers. We use it far more often than any other tool.
- Momondo and Skyscanner can help find even lower fares. Momondo does the best overall job of searching small discount airlines, that operate in other parts of the world. Google is good, but Momondo is better. They also work with a collection of less well-known online travel booking sites, which will often shave a little off the price of many airline tickets. However, by the time you click through to the final screen, you sometimes find that their prices aren’t always lower. We make sure to check Momondo, when we expect that Google Flights may be missing some options on lower-cost foreign airlines; or to see if we can get a better price, just before we book our tickets.
- If you’re flexible with where you want to go, you can use various tools to help find destinations that are currently available at good values. Our favorite of these tools is Fareness. But there are several other good options. Finding a Cheap Fare to SOMEWHERE.
Skyscanner is very similar, but overall, not quite as good, as Momondo. However, Skyscanner sometimes uncovers fares that Momondo and Google Flights do not. So, if you want to invest some additional energy, you can search it as well.
For additional information and advice on airfare search tools, see our guide to the Best Websites to Search for Airfares.
If you can, be flexible with your dates (and airports)
If you have some flexibility in your plans, it can make a big difference in how much you’ll need to pay. When you are searching, you’ll want to make sure to look at a combination of different dates, and airport options, to see if you can find a lower fare.
- Changing your flights, by as little as a single day, can dramatically reduce the cost of your trip. If you have the flexibility, see what options are available for a day or two in either direction from your ideal travel dates. Finding the Cheapest Date to Fly.
- Generally, flights to leisure destinations are more expensive if you travel on the weekends, especially at holiday times. Many other travelers are optimizing their travel around school and work holidays, so they want to fly out on a Friday or Saturday, and fly back on a Saturday or Sunday. If you can shift your dates to fly in and out on a weekday, you’ll generally find significantly better fares. Sometimes, returning 2 days after the end of a holiday break, can cut the price of your tickets in half.
- Flights to more business-oriented destinations are usually cheaper, if you travel on the weekend. If you are flying to a city, rather than to a resort destination, the majority of travelers are probably traveling on business. Most of them want to head out and back on weekdays, especially on Mondays and Fridays. The cheapest flights tend to be Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
- If you have the flexibility, see if you can save money by shifting your entire trip one or more weeks in a different direction. Sometimes even a week can result in a dramatic change in pricing. This could be based on behind-the-scenes seasonality rules, a conference or other event that is driving up prices, or a fare war that applies to part of the year.
- Make sure to check nearby airports. Sometimes, you can get dramatically lower fares, if you are willing to travel to slightly more distant airport. For some cities, like New York, you can shop with a single airline code, that searches all that city’s airports. However, for most destinations, if you want to uncover some additional options, you need to take advantage of the booking engine’s ability to search nearby airports, or enter the airport codes manually.
If you are using Google Flights, you can easily view the lowest prices for different days, by opening the calendar boxes. To see the actual flight options for each date, you’ll need to view a single day at a time, but Google Flights is blazingly fast, so you can check a bunch of dates in very little time.
If you are using Momondo, you can’t really trust the date chart that is displayed at the top of the page, and need to search each date individually instead. You’ll just need to take the time, and wait, while it searches each day.
Travelling on the actual date of the holiday can be considerably less expensive. For example, domestic travel on Christmas and Thanksgiving is much cheaper than travelling on other days during the holiday period.
Fly when others don’t want to
The way to get the most significant discounts, is to fly when others don’t want to.
Flights to Europe are much cheaper in the winter, rather than in the spring and summer. Flights to tropical destinations are cheaper in the summer, then in the dead-of-winter. Red-eyes and early morning flights are usually considerably cheaper than flights that travel at more convenient times. Flights with connections are often cheaper than nonstops.
If you are willing to fly when other people are not, you can usually find great deals. The same is true if you are willing to suffer through a less convenient routing. If you want the best possible routing, during peak travel days, you are simply going to have to pay the highest fares.
Rather than deciding where to go, and then finding the best possible flights, you can choose your destination based on where you can fly at a great price. There are several tools that can help you find cheaper-than-usual destinations due to low-season rates, airfare price wars, or low cost carriers. Finding a Cheap Fare to SOMEWHERE.
Make sure you’ve looked at what’s available on low-priced airlines
Some of the best airfare deals are from low-priced airlines, and fares from some of these airlines don’t show up show up on most flight searching tools. It is usually worthwhile to check all your airline options. You could easily save significant amounts of money, or find more convenient flight times or routes.
For example, Southwest Airlines it one of the four largest US airlines, offers competitively priced flights to over 100 cities, doesn’t charge for checked bags or flight changes, and doesn’t show up on most major travel sites. If you simply search on a site like Expedia, or even Google Flights, you won’t see whether Southwest offers a cheaper, or more convenient, option for your trip.
The good news is it is relatively easy to make sure you are covering all your options.
- Using Momondo is the best way to make sure you are searching almost every airline—we recommend always checking it for international flights. We’ve found that Momondo is the most exhaustive flight searching tool. It finds options on the largest number of airlines, and often finds the cheapest booking site to book the actual tickets. It’s flight results even include prices on Southwest. Simply using Momondo is the easiest way to make sure you uncover your discount airline options. It is close-to-mandatory, if you are looking for cheap intra-European or intra-Asian flights.
- If you are using Google Flights, you’ll need to make sure to click-through to see prices on Southwest, and other airlines. Google Flights is the most convenient tool for investigating lots of different date and routing options. While we strongly recommend it, you need to be careful not to ignore discount airlines. For some airlines, such as Southwest, Google will include the flights in the listings, but they won’t show the ticket prices directly. Therefore, they never bubble up to the better flight options at the top of the list, or show up in the low-price calendar, and are easy to miss. If you want to see the actual prices, you’ll need to click on their link, and visit airline’s own website. For flights in the US, we find it easier to just check Southwest's website directly, after looking at our other options on Google Flights.
- When flying between North America and Europe, make sure to consider the new discount options, even if they don’t leave from your city. Over the past few years, a set of low-cost airlines have started flying between the US and Europe. Their prices are cheap enough, that it is often worthwhile to purchase a separate ticket to make your own way to one of their gateway cities. Like Southwest, you may need to visit the airline’s website directly to see what is available. Getting to Europe on Low Cost Carriers.
- Make sure to factor in all the fees. While Southwest Airlines has fewer fees than most other airlines, many discount airlines will nickel-and-dime you with additional fees. At the extreme end of the spectrum, airlines like Spirit Airlines in the US, and Ryan airlines in Europe, are famous for making most of their profits from fees, rather than from tickets.
- One additional potential downside: what happens when something goes wrong. Some of the time you fly, you are going to run into some sort of problem—planes break down, bad weather affects flight operations, crew members don’t show up, planes run behind schedule. If your flight needs to be cancelled, airlines will reschedule you on the next available flight, that can get you where you need to go. When this happens, you are often better off on larger legacy airline. Low-cost carriers often have fewer flights per day, considerably smaller route networks, and fewer hubs, making it harder for them to find alternative flights. They run a tighter ship, making it harder for them to find a replacement plane or crew. And they never have mutual arrangements with other airlines for handling stranded passengers. In some cases, you can be stuck for days, while you wait for new flights to become available.
Not only will you pay to check bags, you’ll often pay for a regular-sized carry-on bag; and if you don’t pay the baggage fees online ahead-of-time, you might pay additional penalties. You’ll also often need to pay extra, if you want an advanced seat assignment, even towards the back-of-the-plane. Some airlines will even charge an extra fee, if you need to print out a boarding pass at the airport.
Before committing to a lower priced airline, make sure you understand and factor in the fees. With many flights, you’ll still save a significant amount of money, even after you’ve paid for your luggage and a seat assignment. On other trips, a slightly more expensive ticket, with a different airline, may wind up being the better option by the time you are done looking at the total cost of the ticket.
Get the credit card for the airline you fly the most
If there are one or two airlines that you frequently use, and you don’t already have elite status, you should get their co-branded credit card(s).
- If you have their credit card, most airlines won’t charge you for your first checked bag. This benefit extends to a number of traveling companions; and you’ll frequently get priority boarding, and some other airline benefits as well. Get Free Checked Bags via Airline Credit Cards.
- An airline credit card takes away some of the pain of “basic economy tickets”. United, American, and Delta have all rolled-out “basic economy” fares, which don’t come with many of the benefits that travelers normally expect from traditional airlines. Most importantly, on United and American, you can no longer bring a carry-on bag, and are forced to pay for checked luggage. However, if you carry one of their credit cards, you can take some of the sting out of this new fare class. Cardholders don’t have to wait until the last boarding group, and get a free checked bag.
The best time to buy tickets
Another factor that plays a role in how expensive your tickets will be, is how far ahead of time you purchase them. Try to avoid last-minute airplane travel. Other than that, there are no hard-and-fast rules about when to book tickets. A few websites try to predict whether prices will rise or fall, but thier advice isn't that reliable.
- The best time to buy domestic tickets is one to four months before you are going to fly. In most cases, tickets will tend go up as you get closer to the travel dates, especially when you get within the final three weeks. However, if you book too far out, the airlines haven’t bothered to start pricing tickets aggressively yet. For summer travel, try to book by the middle of May.
- If you are buying for the holidays, earlier is usually better. An exception to waiting until one or two months before your trip, is when you know you are going to be travelling during holiday periods. Prices usually start going up much sooner. The very best rates are available only about a month before each holiday, when airlines unload their unsold inventory. But that’s risky. If flights have gotten full, there may be no cheap options left.
- You are sometimes better purchasing international tickets further ahead-of-time. Historically about three to six months out, was a good window for long-haul flights. However, recent competitive turmoil often results in airfare sales closer to the departure date. Prices may wind up going down, or they might just keep creeping up. So, it is a bit of risk. However, for most ultra-cheap airlines, ticket prices will start out cheap, and just keeping going up, the longer you wait.
- Contrary to what you might have heard, there isn’t a magical time during the week to purchase tickets. Airlines are now adjusting inventory and prices on a continuous basis, and there is no time during the week that has consistently lower pricing. Just shop when it is convenient for you. You might read that average ticket prices are cheaper on the weekends, but that is a statistical by-product of more leisure and less business flights being bought during those times.
Other basic tips
- Some people can save a lot of money each year, by taking advantage of “companion certificates” they get from airline credit cards. The best options are for Alaska and Delta Airlines. Get 2 for 1 Airplane Tickets using Credit Card Companion Certificates.
- If you are buying tickets for more than one person at a time, you may need to make separate reservations, to avoid being overcharged. If there are not enough of a cheaper ticket “class” available for everyone on your reservation, the airline will charge the higher price for every passenger, rather than selling you a mix of the remaining lower priced tickets, and the additional higher priced ones. You’ll save money by splitting your reservation up, so that you can book at least some of your tickets at the lower rate.
- Momondo (and other services) will find booking sites that will sell you cheaper tickets, but be careful where you buy. Regardless of the tool you use to figure out which flights to take, an aggregator like Momondo (or Kayak) will often find a travel site that is willing to sell you tickets at a lower cost than you can get directly from the airline, or with a larger travel site like Expedia. While you might save a few dollars, you also might come to regret your decision.
- Price and schedule aren’t everything, don’t neglect comfort. If there are several different good flight options, choose the one that is likely to be more comfortable. Several websites help you find the information to evaluate the comfort of your different flight options. Choosing Flights Based on Comfort.
If you need to make a change in your plans, some sites will charge you an additional fee (on top of whatever you owe the airline). They also tend not to offer generous 24-hour cancellation policies like the larger travel sites.
We prefer either buying from the airline itself, to avoid any additional hassles of having to deal with a third party when there is a problem; or purchasing from a one of the larger travel sites, to take advantage of any potential side-benefits. If you are going to buy from a smaller site, make sure to check out their cancellation policies.
Additional tricks to save money
If you are willing to spend considerably more time, you can sometimes find significantly lower fares. There are several creative strategies you can employ, to uncover other routes, and drop the ticket prices you’ll pay. But they usually involve more time and effort, and sometimes “bending” airline rules.
These strategies are covered more fully in our Finding Cheaper Fares: Advanced Strategies overview, as well as in individual articles focused on specific strategies. They are especially useful, when you are booking more expensive international and holiday flights.