Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

Mary Gormandy White
Traveler on a plane

If you're planning a trip that will require flying, finding the most affordable fare is likely at the top of your to-do list. While saving money on airline tickets isn't an exact science, there are a number of strategies you can use to seek the best available deals on plane tickets.

8 Ways to Spend Less for Airfare

1. Shop Well in Advance of Travel

You shouldn't wait until just a few days (or even weeks) before you need to travel to purchase airline tickets. This is because fees for air travel fluctuate based on supply and demand. When departure day draws near, fewer seats are available and rates go up. However, purchasing too far in advance can also lead to higher fares. In a 2012 study, CheapAir.com found that the ideal time to purchase domestic airline tickets generally tends to be seven weeks in advance of departure, although many factors can impact pricing and time frames.

  • According to CheapAir.com, you will likely pay the highest fees if you purchase tickets 14 days or less before departure, or more than five months before departure.
  • CheapAir.com says "the sweet spot" for purchasing domestic airline tickets generally falls "between 3 weeks and 4 months in advance," unless the travel dates are during a peak travel time.

2. Choose Shopping Days Wisely

The day of the week you shop for tickets can also have an impact on the price you have to pay. Airplane ticket prices rise and fall frequently during the sales cycle, often fluctuating with peak times that people are shopping for travel and in reaction to what competitors are doing with pricing. No matter how far in advance you shop, you may pay more for tickets if you buy them on the weekend.

  • According to an analysis published on the Wall Street Journal website, ticket rates are often lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays than on other days of the week. Some airlines launch special sales on Monday evenings, and their competitors may react by lowering rates the following morning. By Thursday, as the weekend approaches, these specials typically expire.
  • The Wall Street Journal article also points out that "airlines don't manage their inventory as actively on the weekends." This results in automated price increases going into effect as inventory is reduced. These increases typically stay in place until deeper analysis of sales and what competitors are doing can be carried out when the work week begins.

3. Check Last Minute Fares

When you aren't in a position to plan in advance, it is still possible to find a good deal on last minute travel. However, that's only if a special deal that meets your travel needs happens to be available. This can be a great option for people who like to travel spontaneously and have the flexibility to do so, but it isn't as viable for travelers who need to stick to a specific schedule and destination.

  • Last-minute deals typically require leaving on a weekend, departing from and going to a major hub destination, and coming back during mid week. These deals are generally offered by airlines only a few days before travel would be required.
  • You can seek out last minute travel deals by searching fare sales on the websites of your favorite (or most convenient) airlines or by subscribing to their special fare e-mail updates. For example, the American Airlines website has a Travel Deals & Last Minute Airfare page where you can search or register for email notifications. All of the major airlines offer something similar.

4. Avoid Heavy Travel Days

Holiday and business travel are key factors that contribute to limited seat availability and increased costs. Rates tend to be highest on the busiest travel days (when planes are likely to fill up quickly) and lower on days when the passenger load is expected to be lighter.

  • When traveling around holidays, try to depart before or after the times most people are likely to be traveling. Consider when companies are likely to close and realize that most people will be traveling at that time. Take off from work a few days before the holiday to beat the rush, or even consider traveling on the day of the holiday for even bigger savings. For example, according to IndependentTraveler.com, flights on Christmas Eve tend to be cheaper than on the days just before December 24, and Christmas Day flights cost even less.
  • According to AARP, business travel generally tends to be heaviest on Mondays and Fridays, so leisure travelers flying to (or through) major business travel destinations do well to avoid those days whenever possible. Instead, opt for mid-week or weekend travel. Even if you are a business traveler, consider adjusting your departure or return time to save money, assuming the extra hotel time and per diem fees make up for the difference.
  • If you must book leisure travel on a Monday, you may find it less expensive to fly during the late afternoon or evening hours due to business-related traffic. If you must travel on a Friday, the morning flights are likely to be the least expensive. The last flight out of a major hub on a Friday evening will likely be the most expensive option of that day.

5. Consider Local Factors Impacting Cost

When scheduling flights, consider which types of events and activities are going on at your destination, as well as near the airports that you will go through for connecting flights. This is because special events and activities can greatly impact seat availability, as well as costs, on planes.

  • For example, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is held Thursday through Sunday of the last two weekends in April every year. Airfare to and from New Orleans is likely to be quite expensive around this time, even on Wednesday, which might otherwise be one of the most affordable times to fly to or through this city. College and professional sporting events are also examples of local events that can impact the cost of air travel.
  • Don't just consider situations that draw in tourists; business travel also impacts availability. Check out convention calendars in the areas you plan to fly to, and consider other circumstances that might lead to heavier-than-usual flight loads. For example, air travel into Washington D.C. will likely be very heavy on Mondays when Congress is in session, and it will become heavy again heading out of the area on Thursday night and Friday morning.

6. Consider Using Different Airports

Air travel rates can vary significantly based on the departure or arrival airport selected. If you live in or are traveling to a location served by multiple airports within a reasonable distance, check fares for all of them.

  • You may find that rates are significantly higher when you leave from your home airport, which would make it worthwhile to drive an hour or two in order to leave from a different point of origin. The same is true for arrivals. For example, it may be cheaper to fly into Dulles or Baltimore-Washington International Airport than go directly to Reagan National Airport when traveling to Washington, D.C..
  • Consider the cost of gas and parking or other transportation, as well as the value of your time, before you decide if driving to an airport outside of your home city or travel destination is the best option.

7. Check Travel Sites and Airlines for Fares

To get the best rates, comparison shop for fares using all available options. While you can sometimes find good deals on travel sites like Expedia, Farefox and others, they don't always offer better fares than the airlines themselves. Look at travel sites and also go directly to the websites of airlines that serve your points of departure and destination.

  • If you rely solely on travel sites without going directly to the airlines themselves, you may end up paying more than you have to. You may even end up giving up the perks of buying directly from the airline (like frequent flyer miles that can help you save on future travel) without any real savings. You won't even get rates from some airlines, including Southwest, since not all airlines sell tickets through these sites.
  • If you don't check travel sites and only seek options directly from airlines, you can miss out on savings opportunities that can come from splitting your travel among more than one airline. Travel sites often offer packages that have you leave on one airline and come home on another to help keep the ticket price as low as possible.

8. Leverage Rewards Programs

If you know that you will need to purchase airline tickets far in advance, consider which kind of travel point programs might help you earn airline miles that can be applied toward your ticket purchases or upgrades.

  • If you stay in hotels frequently, you may be able to accrue airline miles. For example, with Hilton's HHonors rewards program, you can divert some of the points earned from hotel stays to airline miles.
  • Consider switching your credit card account to one that has a good travel rewards program, and be sure to select one that offers generous airline mileage rewards. Many airlines even offer their own credit card programs, often with general bonus mile awards for new cardholders. Of course, be careful that you don't rack up expensive debt just to save money on airline tickets.
  • Frequent flyer miles are transferable. So, if you have friends or relatives who flies frequently for work, they may have a stockpile of airline miles that they'd be willing to let you use. Consider bartering a service that you can easily provide (such as meal preparation, yard work, home maintenance, etc.) in exchange for this type of assistance.

Many Ways to Find Cheap Airfare

While there are many ways to save money when purchasing plane tickets, the fact is that air travel is not cheap. Research your purchase carefully using the tips here that seem best suited for your situation, and make sure that you are ready to buy when you find a good deal. The low rate that you find today may well not still be there tomorrow - or even a few hours from now.

Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare