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An Insider’s Guide: Finding Cheap Airline Tickets

Author: Matthew Taylor

You've boarded your flight to Austin, settled down into an uncomfortable middle seat in economy class and struck up a conversation with your seat mate – only to find out that he paid $100 less for the same ticket. If you've ever had this experience, you know the exquisite angst that's often a part of the search for the cheapest airline ticket.

One hundred bucks less? And yet you were sure, after three hours spent surfing among Priceline, Expedia and airline websites, that you had definitely found the cheapest price in existence on the web. You wonder what the guy in the aisle seat knows that you don't know (other than how to snag an aisle seat on an overbooked flight).

Don't get mad; get informed. With these six simple strategies, you can ensure that next time, you're the one in the aisle seat bragging about that bargain ticket.

1. Look for the Best Value

Before you kick off your search for a bargain ticket, remember that cheap is relative. Some routes, such as transatlantic flights from the U.S. to Paris in peak summer season, are rarely cheap. You're not necessarily looking for the cheapest flight – you're looking for the cheapest flight that you're actually willing to take. A better way to put it is that you're searching for the best value, relative to demand, season, route, layover time, connections, airline desirability and, of course, raw price. Many people also prioritize airlines with which they have an existing frequent flier account. (See 7 Top Ways to Earn Airline Miles and Top Airline Miles Credit Cards for information on how to rack up miles.)

2. Get Familiar With Booking Tools

To navigate this increasing complex digital landscape, it's important to know the differences among available online booking tools – essentially, the types of sites that market and sell airline tickets. (See Top Cheap Travel Websites for a look at several online travel agencies.) If you find this confusing, you're not alone: Even travel pros have booked a ticket on a consolidator site only to find themselves mired in unintelligible fine print, subject to draconian change or cancellation policies, or being notified via email that the ticket has risen in price.

First, bargain-friendly consolidator sites – which usually offer unpublished fares – often bear the brunt of criticism when it comes to heavily discounted tickets (think 20% to 70% off published fares) that sometimes are accompanied by a host of potential problems. While legitimate consolidators can offer serious discounts, always check on the site's reputation with the Better Business Bureau before booking. Finally, always use a credit card: It's easier to dispute a credit card transaction than a cash payment using a debit card.

More murky territory arises with third-party sites, which sell tickets directly to you, and search engines, which search for tickets that meet your preferred specifications from among a large (but not necessarily exhaustive) group of airlines. Neither option is necessarily cheaper than the other, although the biggest search engines, such as KAYAK, Skyscanner and Fly.com, show fares from both airlines and third-party sites. If you're seeking a low-cost carrier, however, keep in mind that some carriers, such as Southwest Airlines, don't show up on search engines. Beware of third-party fares that are hundreds of dollars lower than anything else you find; they're often listed on disreputable sites. And always double-check reviews and consumer reports on unfamiliar third-party sites, just as you would with consolidators.

One last tip on tools: Keep a go-to list of top sites where you've found good deals in the past, or newer sites that have good customer reviews. That way you won't fall victim to desperate 2 a.m. Googling – the kind where your hastily typed search query, cheapest flight to Bangkok, may yield a slew of potentially untrustworthy booking sites.

3. Go to the Airlines

While airlines themselves are criticized for setting seemingly arbitrary high prices, don't discount them as the of cheap tickets. The beauty of airline websites is that usually, what you see here is what you get. The best strategy for booking a low-cost ticket through an airline website is a kind of one-two punch: First, head to a comprehensive travel search engine to check which airlines offer the cheapest flights to your destination. Once you've established a handful of possibilities, check directly with the airline websites: You'll usually find the same (or sometimes even cheaper) options there.

Remember, it's the airlines themselves that set prices and offer sales, so it always pays to check the airline price against other booking engines. Some airlines, such as American and United, offer weekly sale fares: Consider signing up for email newsletters that feature these changing sales.

4. Exercise Due Diligence

No matter how you book, it's important to double-check details such as price, passenger info and rules regarding fees for ticket changes and refunds. However, due diligence is doubly important when you're booking with a third party site. Although longstanding sites such as Expedia and Orbitz have solid reputations, remember that if you need to change your flight, you'll be dealing with the site's customer service agents, not the airline's. This is especially important to keep in mind when you're bidding for a ticket on a site like Priceline, which can result in a tremendous bargain – or a tremendous headache if your itinerary changes.

According to Consumers Union, while third-party sites may provide legal details on refund restrictions and other purchase information, such details are often difficult to spot: They're either written in a miniscule font or concealed within a lengthy paragraph of fine print.

5. Time It Right

Everyone knows it's cheaper to travel in the off-season (although some forget that low season in Rio de Janeiro is not the same as low season in Rome). What many overlook is the importance of timing when it comes to the date and time of the actual booking, rather than the itinerary itself.

A study by the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) revealed that customers who booked tickets six weeks in advance of departure paid, on average, 6% less than the average fare. For international flights, plan farther ahead: The ARC suggests that these flights are generally cheapest about six months in advance. Other strategies? Scour airline websites in the mornings, when sales are usually released and avoid booking on weekends. Finally, be as flexible as possible about your itinerary: Early morning and late evening flights often prove to be better bargains than flights leaving during business hours.

6. Fly Without Frills

In the past decade, no frills, low-cost carriers have exploded across the globe, especially in Europe and Asia. From forking over a few Euros for a blanket to paying for water and coffee – a practice unheard of during the golden age of travel – customers who fly budget airlines are willing to sacrifice comfort and amenities for rock-bottom prices. Excepting last-minute sales, you'll find the best prices on low-cost airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair by booking at least several weeks – or months – in advance. As you approach the departure date, low cost fares are likely to climb closer to fares offered by mainstream airlines.

Remember that many no frills airlines fly out of airports far from the center of major cities, so factor that into your equation of time plus money. From most points in central London, for example, remote London Luton can be more expensive and time-consuming – with multiple transfers between Tube, train and shuttle bus – to reach than London Heathrow.

The Bottom Line

You've mastered search engines and booking tools. You've strategically timed your bookings and itineraries, read the fine print and done a cost-benefit analysis on fares offered by mainstream and low-cost carriers. If that cheap flight remains elusive, remember that understanding airline pricing can feel like decoding a riddle: While Tuesday afternoons have been found to be the cheapest time to book flights, Wednesdays are generally the cheapest departure days. A final confounding fact: For flights less than three weeks away, Sunday wins out as the best day to book a cheap ticket – breaking the age-old don't book on weekends rule altogether.

See How to Fly First Class for Cheap for eight smart strategies to get yourself into a first class seat.

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