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Best Ways To Purchase Cheap Airline Tickets

Author: Andrew Taylor

If you walk down the aisle of any commercial airlines flight, you're likely to find that your fellow passengers paid significantly different amounts for the same types of seats, depending on when and how they purchased them.

We decided to put some of these methods to the test. Here's what we learned about the best ways to purchase cheap airline tickets.

Where to Look

Online, of course – and there are three options: online travel agencies (OTAs), metasearch sites and directly from the airline itself. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

– Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). These sites have largely, though not completely, replaced brick-and-mortar travel agencies. Here you can not only search an extensive database of flights and competitive rates, but also book additional travel needs, such as hotel rooms and rental cars.

OTAs commonly offer discounts for flights packaged with rooms and other items that you couldn't find elsewhere. However, OTAs will not always have the cheapest fares since some airlines, such as Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) and Allegiant Travel Co. (ALGT), choose not to sell tickets on third-party sites. If these airlines go where you're headed, it's worth taking time to check them individually.

Notable examples: Expedia (EXPE), Orbitz (OWW), Priceline (PCLN), Travelocity.

– Metasearch travel sites. Metasearch travel sites conduct specialized searches across major travel sites (OTAs and airlines included) to offer the traveler a wider range of choices.

A majority of the biggest metasearch travel sites use ITA, a special software owned and operated by Google, that finds and curates an exhaustive list of flight options. However, you would still have to book through an OTA to get special packages.

Notable examples: Kayak.com, CheapOair, momondo.

– Airlines. It may be advantageous to book flights directly with an airline for two reasons: First, you'll get a more accurate picture of the actual price of travel since airlines are generally transparent and upfront with fees. Second, airlines usually pay commissions to sites such as OTAs that bring them customers. With no middleman, you may get a lower price.

The major downsides are, of course, the lack of carrier comparison and the absence of hotel/car packages.

Notable examples: Any airline.

Comparing the Options

To illustrate how prices may vary among platforms, we ran a few hypothetical round-trip flights through the industry's leading sites: Chicago, U.S., to Milan, Italy; Johannesburg, South Africa, to Osaka, Japan; and Tampa, U.S., to Lima, Peru (each was for May 1 – May 8, 2015; one adult; economy class; lowest ticket price shown as of January 26, 2015). Please note, these prices do not include taxes or fees. The cheapest price in each category, and its airline, is in boldface type.

Chicago – Milan

Johannesburg – Osaka

Tampa – Lima

Expedia (OTA)

$966 (United)

$916 (Qatar)

$803 (Silver/JetBlue)

Orbitz (OTA)

$908 (Turkish Airlines)

$781 (Qatar)

$506 (Spirit)

Travelocity (OTA)

$1,037 (Aer Lingus)

$915 (Qatar)

$804 (Silver/JetBlue)

Kayak (meta)

$909 (Turkish Airlines)

$826 (Cathay Airlines)

$507 (Spirit)

CheapOair (meta)

$792 (Turkish Airlines)

$807 (Qatar)

$401 (Spirit)

momondo (meta)

$934 (United)

$801 (Cathay Airlines)

$504 (Spirit) (same!)

As you can see, identical searches may yield different results, even among the biggest travel sites. In this search at this time, CheapOair won in two categories, but Orbitz won the third. Note that different prices were listed for the same airline by different sites.

As a rule, always check big travel sites in addition to smaller, lesser-known ones. Some sites allow you to perform simultaneous searches among competitors.

Other Ways to Save on Tickets

In addition to shopping around for the cheapest tickets, here are a few other tricks that'll help you save money when booking plane tickets:

  • According to studies by FareCompare.com, book your flight at 3:00 pm on a Tuesday and travel on Wednesdays to get the cheapest tickets possible.
  • Try to book your flight six to two weeks before your departure. If you book with fewer than two weeks remaining, airliners may assume you're a business traveler and charge you a premium.
  • It may prove advantageous to book two separate one-way tickets through different airlines. Kayak even offers a hacker tool to find deals like these.
  • Check travel blogs for unique money-saving ideas from some of the world's most prolific travelers.
  • Look for credit cards that offer free air miles so you can slash the price of plane tickets with your normal, everyday purchases (see Top Airline Miles Credit Cards).

The Bottom Line

Air travel itself is incredibly convenient, but the search for cheap tickets can be difficult. Be sure to check multiple sites for the best rates possible and plan your trip several weeks in advance to save the most money. For more ways to save on travel, see Websites That Save You Money On Hotel Rooms and Alternative Travel: Discount Hotels And More Online.

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