How to find cheap flights

Tips, secrets, and our favorite sites for finding the cheapest plane tickets

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Everybody loves a good deal, and air travel is expensive, which is why there are plenty of travel websites designed to help you do just that: finding the cheapest flights available.

The question is, is it still possible to find a cheap ticket? Although more people are flying than ever, airfares have remained high, and there are several reasons why. First, there’s less competition, due to recent airline consolidation and liquidations. Second, passengers are paying more fees than before, whether it’s to check a bag or pick a nicer seat. That’s not including government-sanctioned fees.

Despite less capacity and increasing fares, airfare deals can still be found.

Third, many airlines have cut capacity (flying fewer flights or smaller planes) or eliminated unprofitable routes, which means there are fewer seats available to offer at discount (ever notice how packed flights are these days?). These cuts were made during a period of high gas prices and recession, which also forced airlines to raise prices. Now, thanks to cheaper fuel and a recovering economy, those cuts have made airlines more profitable, so they haven’t found the reason to increase spending to reinstate capacity; in fact, they’ve continued to hike up fares.

Still, there are deals to be found, if you know how to shop and where to look, with minimal effort (this isn’t about travel hacking for free flights, as that’s a story for another day). In addition to the various websites that have the sole job of publishing nothing but last-minute deals, there are now tools that leverage big data to actually predict when airfares are at their cheapest. So before you book your next flight, following these tips (culled from tips from experts, travel sites, and our own personal experiences) could help you save some cash.

Shop around

With so many travel sites to choose from, where should you look?

If you’re pressed for time, search Google Flights. After you enter your desired destination(s) and dates, you’ll be presented with the lowest airfare not only for your selected travel dates, but also the prices for other times. You can also chart fares by graph, and have Google monitor for price changes. Google also provides tips on when it thinks you should fly, and show you the price difference for a higher class of service.

Why pick Google Flights over others? The flight information it uses comes from ITA Software, a company Google acquired in 2011. ITA provides tech services to many major airlines (including budget carriers), travel websites, and other travel-related companies. Because ITA handles so much real-time analytics for the airlines, including pricing and scheduling, Google Flights is able to show the best prices available at the time of search. It’s the same data that powers Kayak, Bing Travel, and Orbitz. (You can also use ITA’s Matrix price comparison software to find cheap flights, but Google Flights provides a cleaner user interface that we find a bit easier to use.)

Google Flights doesn’t handle monetary transactions, however. Once you find an ideal itinerary, you will need to book through the airline’s website or a travel site like Priceline, CheapOair, Orbitz, or Expedia.

Of course, Google Flights isn’t the end-all and be-all when it comes to price comparison. Also search Hipmunk, Skyscanner, Routehappy, and Momondo to make sure there isn’t a better deal than what you’re finding on Google Flights, particularly if you are planning an international trip (we particularly like how Hipmunk displays its results). Also, note that these search engines may not account for any special deals, so it doesn’t hurt to check an individual airline’s website as well.

Be ready to compromise

Unless you have exact dates you need to fly, changing the times could offer some savings. For example, flying on a Tuesday or Sunday could cost less than Monday or Friday. That goes for certain times of the day as well. Having to get up early for a 5 a.m. flight isn’t pleasant, but it could make a significant dent in pricing. There aren’t any hard rules on what days or times will yield the lowest prices, but playing with dates through a price comparison engine, like Google Flights, can provide an overview of prices.

Many major cities are served by multiple airports, and sometimes you could find cheaper flights that fly into a secondary facility. For example, in a random search, a JetBlue flight from New York to Burbank, California, was $40 to $70 less expensive than flying to Los Angeles International or Long Beach Airport. The tradeoff is that there is only one daily flight – not ideal for business travel, but some savings for those who aren’t concerned about when they fly. (On the flip side, competition at LAX is fierce, so you could find low prices among the carriers that fly into that airport.) Many search engines will let you search all the airports in an area, not just a specific airport. Also, consider flying one-way with one airline, and the return trip on another; Nomadfly is a good site that shows you how to do this.

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Would you be willing to make a connection in order to save some cash? We wouldn’t if it’s a $25 or even $50 savings, but anything more than $100 is worth considering. But connections can be risky — you have a chance of missing it. Or you could simply have to wait hours before you board the next flight. It isn’t always cheaper, so do that price comparison. But it’s an option to look into, especially during busy travel seasons when direct flights are pricey.

Get creative

As mentioned, you don’t have to fly one airline for a round-trip journey. For example, you could fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Virgin America, and make the return trip on Southwest. It takes more work to book, but travel sites like Kayak and Google Flights will usually present these options in search results. Avoid connecting between two different airlines in one journey, as it may require you to switch terminals.

International flights tend to be expensive, so consider connecting through another city on a separate itinerary. Here’s what we mean: If you’re flying from the U.S. to London, you could possibly locate a deal by flying to another nearby European city instead, and then booking a cheap flight to London on a discount carrier. This involves a bit of work on your part, and it could require you to go through border control twice. We’ve done this ourselves, and to be honest, the hassle is not for everyone, but it could save you money.

Going low-cost

Budget carriers – just the name alone strikes terror in many people’s hearts. In reality, many low-cost carriers’ services are on par with what’s offered in the coach cabins of full-service airlines. In fact, many would argue that the service on Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America actually exceed those of larger carriers. Downsides include fewer destinations and frequencies, and, in the case of ultra-low-cost carriers, very few or no perks.

To find the best deals, be ready to compromise or rethink your itinerary.

As the name suggests, low-cost carriers tend to offer lower fares. Generally it’s true, but that isn’t always the case. For example, when we searched for a flight from New York City to Las Vegas during one of Southwest’s sales, we actually found a much lower fare on United (legacy carriers would often price-match). But Southwest offers two free checked bags and a more flexible change policy, so if that matters to you, it may be worth paying a bit more upfront than to pay surcharges later.

If you truly want to save money, you should look into an ultra-low-cost carrier. Airlines like Spirit and Frontier are the epitome of a budget airline, as they don’t offer any frills and charge for almost everything else, including a carry-on, preferred seat, and even a can of soda.

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But the savings are attractive, particularly for leisure travelers. A search for a flight between New York City and Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Spirit was $153 round-trip, versus $274 on JetBlue and $377 on United; if you sign up for Spirit’s “$9 Fare Club,” it could be $20 to $40 cheaper. Even if you add a checked bag ($21 during booking or $31 during check-in, each way), the fare is still lower. You may not get the “freebies,” but you could always bring your own iPad and soda onboard to compensate.

The ultra-low-cost model is popular in Europe and Asia, and it’s worth a look if you’re traveling within those regions, or, as we mentioned earlier, if you’re looking for a creative alternative to get to your final destination. For example, for a trip from New York City to Malaysia, we found it was cheaper to fly direct to nearby Singapore on United than on a connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur. To complete the journey, we purchased an $80 round-trip ticket on AirAsia. The savings were significant enough to warrant the overnight layover, terminal change, and security check, but it isn’t for everyone.

Low-cost carriers are fine for short-haul flights, but could you see yourself flying long haul on Spirit from Fort Lauderdale to Lima, Peru? If you consider that Spirit charges $411 round-trip for the nearly six-hour flight, versus JetBlue’s $540 fare and American’s $754 fare (out of nearby Miami International), the $129 to $343 savings are attractive, even if it means foregoing things like food and a more comfortable seat.

Transatlantic flights between the U.S. and Europe are dominated by the major carriers of both continents, but a few airlines are bringing the low-cost model to these routes. Norwegian Air Shuttle of Norway is one that’s generating buzz, offering fares less than $500 (round-trip) to from New York to Europe. Plus, it flies new Boeing 787s between Europe and the U.S., which should make the journey more comfortable. Digital Trends Mobile Editor Malarie Gokey has flown Norwegian twice this year and loved it, but recommends opting for the mid-tier fare instead of the lowest, if you want food or bag check.

Begin search with big data

It’s hard to say exactly when you should book a ticket. Some travel sites suggest booking two weeks before you fly, but we’ve seen more recommendations of two and four months in advance – more for international flights (prices will shoot up if you book close to your desired departure date, but booking way too early doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the best deal, either). Adobe’s research found that 90 days is a good rule of thumb for 16-percent discount, however the rule doesn’t always apply. The old advice of buying on a Tuesday doesn’t hold much sway (if ever), but waiting until the last-minute, in hopes of a cheap fare, is risky. (CheapAir.com offers some good insights.)

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If you’re planning a vacation with some flexibility, you could look at historical data and investigate good times to fly. Hopper is a company that analyzes both industry data and user behavior (it says its app has six million users) to find those trends. Enter a route, and Hopper will report the latest findings for that itinerary, including what’s a good fare you should shoot for, the best time of the year and days of the week to fly, demand statistics, airlines with the best fares, and alternate airports to consider. When we’re looking for some sort of direction in where to begin our search, Hopper is a useful tool we use. (Google’s Flight “Explore” tool is also handy if you just want the numbers, but less in-depth.)

If you’re looking for last-minute destinations, Adobe’s research suggests Honolulu, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Miami as having the lowest premiums; San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego have the highest.

Look for special deals

Almost every travel-related website has a deals section, including the airlines themselves. We don’t like getting spammed in our email inbox, but signing up for frequent airfare alerts could give you a heads-up of when there’s a sale or discount. A favorite is Airfarewatchdog, which has a team of people who scour the web for deals (unlike most travel sties that rely solely on computers). In addition to travel tips, Nomadic Matt also runs a newsletter that lists weekly deals. If you want a service that monitors real-time updates on pricing, you can’t go wrong with Hopper.

Looking for a last-minute weekend getaway? We’ve always liked United’s weekend specials, which are published every Tuesday of the week. Oftentimes you can find discounted round-trip fares to a variety of destinations. We wouldn’t plan a vacation based on these specials, as the destinations change weekly, but it’s a good option for spontaneous travel.

Fly with reassurance

How do you know you’re finding the best fares? Unless you’re at peace with your search results, you’ll always wonder. Flystein is a service designed for those who suffer from buyer’s remorse. For $29 to $49, Flystein will try to beat your price. If it can’t find you anything better, you won’t be charged. It doesn’t guarantee that you won’t find a lower price in the future (airfares do fluctuate), but it gives you some reassurance that the ticket you book that day, is the cheapest you’ll find.

Beware of booking tricks

You may have read about something called “hidden city” fares (if not, click here to find out). In short, it’s a booking ploy used to exploit an airline loophole; instead of paying for a more expensive flight from points A to B, the traveler purchases a cheaper flight from points A to B to C, but doesn’t complete the entire journey.

For example, instead of flying from Los Angeles to Chicago, a passenger flies from Los Angeles to New York, with a connection in Chicago; however, she would end the journey in Chicago, as that’s her desired destination. Skiplagged is a website that tracks these types of fares, and airlines don’t like this practice (United and Orbitz tried to sue the site) because it’s a revenue loss and messes up their operations. It isn’t illegal, but if caught, an airline could punish the traveler.

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“I have heard of chronic abusers being caught and charged the fares that they avoided by gaming the system in the past,” Brett Snyder, president and author of Crankyflier.com, told us. “There is no other benefit [other than saving money] and there are plenty of cons that could end up costing you if you’re caught.”

Although we know people who have successfully flown on a hidden-city fare, we advise against it. We think there are plenty of options before you need to resort to this practice. The same goes for throwaway tickets, where travelers book a less-expensive round-trip ticket with the intention of flying only one-way.

Another myth to avoid is setting up your browser in incognito or private mode. The thinking here is that sites use cookies to track your searches, and limit the fares you see each time you return to the site, instead of showing you new fares. By browsing privately, it’s believed you’ll get new fare results. However, there’s no evidence that this works; Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights calls it an urban myth.

One last ploy to avoid is searching for “error fares,” which are lower-than-usual fares published by an airline. There are websites dedicated to monitoring for these types of fares, which have become common occurrence due to mistakes made by either a human or a computer. You usually have to book quickly before the airline fixes the mistake, but we say don’t bother: Airlines have the right to void such transactions, although they are often challenged.

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