6 Rules for Finding the Best Airfare

July 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Many travelers are staying closer to home or making the long drive to their destination these days as the cost of a plane ticket becomes more unaffordable. If flying is your only option, and you don’t have wads of cash or piles of frequent flier miles, try these tips when searching for your next flight.
 

Photo of Paris

Use these tips if driving to your destination isn't an option.
1. Know when to book.
Look for flights at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. This is when the low-cost airlines like Southwest publish their specials. The larger airlines follow suit within the next few hours. Prices tend to rise by the weekend. Rates can change quickly, and other travelers can snatch up the cheap seats, so if you find a good price, jump on it. Note that the Tuesday rule applies to domestic fares. International fares don’t seem to change on a set schedule.
 
Don’t book more than two to three months in advance. Rates usually fall a few months before the departure. 
 
2. Know where to look.
Websites like kayak.com and farecompare.com search several sites to come up with a list of available flights and prices. They can also lead you to more convenient flight schedules you wouldn’t find on an airline’s sight because they mix flights with other airlines. Note that some airlines, including Southwest, do not appear on these sites.
 
At airfarewatchdog.com, users can enter their closest airport to come up with a list of the best prices for flights to cities throughout the United States as well as some international cities. Users can also sign up for weekly emails with the best flight prices, many of which are unadvertised. 
 
3. Be flexible.
I clicked the “My dates are flexible” option on the last flight I booked, and I ended up saving more more than $1,000 by changing my departure date by two days. I can’t promise you’ll be as lucky as I was, but you can often save a decent amount of money if you’re willing to change your schedule by a few days. Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the cheapest days to fly, and the old rule about flying more cheaply if you stay over on a Saturday no longer applies.
 
4. Be social.
Some airlines release special offers on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter before revealing them to the rest of the world. You can also learn about deals from your city by registering for the airline’s email list.
 
5. Check the schedule.
Many people buy the cheapest ticket without looking at the flight times. That’s a bad idea for a few reasons. Let’s say you want to spend a long weekend in New Orleans. You book a ticket that leaves on Friday and returns on Monday. Imagine all the fun you can have in four days in the Big Easy. In checking your itinerary, you notice that the flight arrives at 10:30 p.m. on Friday and departs at 7:00 a.m. on Monday. Add in the time it takes to travel to and from the airport, and you’ll arrive just in time for bed on Friday night, and you’ll have to be in bed just after dinner to make your early morning flight on Monday. That only gives you two days, not to mention that you’ll miss out on two nights on the town. After considering the money you’ve spent for a hotel for those two nights, it’s just a bad deal.
 
Transportation to and from the airport could be an issue depending on your flight times. You’re less likely to find a ride from a friend if you are flying early in the morning or late at night. That leaves expensive options like hiring a taxi or airport shuttle or parking in an airport lot. The tram near my house only costs $1.60 each way, so I try to book during its operating hours when possible. 
 
Direct flights are hard to find these days and are often priced much higher than those with connections.
If your flight has connections, beware of layover times. I’ll pay more to avoid a long layover, which costs me valuable time and often a good chunk of change on meals and snacks. I also pass on any itinerary with less than an hour between flights, even if they are in the same terminal, because if my first flight is late, I'll be mor likely to miss my connection and lose my luggage.
 
I have taken several international flights through JFK, which is the perfect storm for airport unpleasantness on the return trip. If you absolutely can’t avoid this airport, allow at least three hours between flights on the return trip. Since it’s the first port of entry in the country, all passengers must wait in long lines at Immigration, pick up their checked baggage, pass through Customs and check their baggage again. Then they must go to another terminal for their connecting flight, where they must pass through security. I have never spent less than 45 minutes in security, and they won’t send anybody to the front of the line for a flight that’s about to depart because everyone in line is facing that issue.
 
6. Add up the hidden costs.
Fees for checked bags, choosing seats and other services not included in the price of the ticket can add up, especially if you’re traveling as a family. Therefore, come up with a total cost before making your choice.
 
If you have any other tips for finding cheaper airfare, please share them here. 

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