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.

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