5 Easy Steps to Getting Cheap Airfare

This is a guest post from Elizabeth Lang of Women’s Money Week. Check out Women’s Money Week to reshape your financial future by signing up to get a free take action step each week. She is also co-editor of the blog Go Green, Travel Green.

If you’ve ever read anything about saving money on travel, you already know that there are hundreds of airfare “secrets.” People will tell you that they have secrets to help you buy cheap tickets. Sometimes they tell you to buy tickets only on Wednesdays at 2:44am. Other says you must buy 47 days before the flight departs. But the truth is that there is no formula.

There is no secret.

In reality, ticket prices depend on the economy, number of competing flights, competitor’s prices, and number of seats remaining.   Despite all these factors there are a few tried and true cardinal rules for finding cheap plane tickets.   Here is the five step method I use every time I plan a trip:

1. Be Flexible, Be Flexible, Be Flexible

The more flexible you can be in your trip plans, the better airfare ticket you can get.   Here are the top ways you can be more flexible:

  2. Consider the Cost of Extras

Just because a certain flight costs $15 less than a different flight doesn’t make it the best deal. Remember to factor in the cost of checked baggage, meals, and getting to and from the airport. For example, if normally your family/friends drive you to the airport, don’t book a flight to leave during the day when that person is at work. Similarly, if you plan to take public transportation to the airport, don’t book the 6am which leaves before the transit system is open and can get you there. Kayak has one of the most comprehensive fee charts I’ve come across which not only includes the cost of bags, but also meals, pets, and seating fees.

3. Get a Baseline Price

After you’ve decided on a destination and rough dates, get a baseline price. from which to compare future prices. Plug your dates and destination into Kayak  or Hipmunk. To see how today’s price compares to recent prices use Kayak and when the search results appear click in the upper left hand corner on “toolbox” then “fare charts.” This will give you a baseline fare which will help determine when you’ve found the best price.

4. Track Your Price

After you have a sense of the typical price for a flight based on the fare history, set up a tracking alert through Kayak,   AirfareWatchdog or Yapta to let you know of price changes. These services will email you daily or weekly to let you know the current price of flights and whether the price is up or down. Yapta allows you to track specific flights (e.g. Delta Flight 123, departing 6am on December 23, returning 8:08pm on December 31) while Kayak and Airfare Watchdog allows you to create a search for broader range of dates.

5.   Buy Direct when the Price is Right

The true art of getting a cheap flight is much like investing in the stock market – you should buy when the price is right. If you’ve set up your tracking at least a few months in advance of your trip you have time to just watch airfare and wait for a great price. Don’t buy a ticket immediately. Typically prices are best between 2-3 months in advance — with the exception of holidays. For non-holidays I like to buy my ticket 6-12 weeks in advance. For tourist destinations during peak travel times (think Florida over spring break) or flights around holidays I buy tickets 3-5 months in advance. Bing has a price predictor tool that will tell you whether it estimates that flights will drop in price.

Unfortunately, there typically aren’t coupons for tickets. (The exception is that you can occasionally get a deal by buying gift cards like I did to save 10% on American Airlines.) But by following this 5 step approach you’ll save hundreds of dollars when booking your next flight. Finally, check on the Cheat Sheet for Cheap Travel on Go Green Travel Green for more great websites that will help you get cheap tickets.

What travel hacks tricks do you use when shopping for airfare?