4 Simple Steps to Finding a Cheaper Airfare

by  Tommy Burson | May 9, 2014
Plane / Biletskiy_Evgeniy/iStock

For many, the idea of a vacation for the sake of a vacation is simply not realistic. With the combined costs of flight, lodging, food, drinks, and maybe a souvenir or two to take home, the impracticality can soon outweigh the fantasy. But with a little careful planning, jetting around the world can be more affordable than you might think. Here, we break down the process of finding flights so cheap, you’ll be handing out Top Gun high-fives to strangers in the street.

When to buy your ticket?

It's a classic debate: if you purchase your ticket too late, you’ll miss out on the best deals, but buying early doesn't necessarily guarantee a reduced fare. A recent study suggested the following timetable for finding the cheapest airfares.

  • Domestic: 54 days before your flight

  • Europe: 151 days before your flight

  • Asia: 129 days before your flight

  • The Caribbean: 101 days before your flight

  • Mexico: 89 days before your flight

  • Latin America: 80 days before your flight

Getting even more specific, most airline computer systems purge their reserved (but un-booked) lower fare reservations on Tuesday evenings. So the best time to secure a cheap flight is actually late Wednesday night in the timezone of the airline’s home base. Synchronizing your booking in this way almost ensures a significant discount.

So when’s the best time to fly?

That depends on your flexibility. Wednesday departures are generally much cheaper than every other day of the week. Can’t take off work mid-week? Saturday is the next cheapest option because so few people want to cut their vacation short mid-weekend. Once you sort your days, you’ll want to reserve the most undesirable ticket on the market. That generally means flights that take off at 6:00 a.m., or a red-eye. When purchasing your ticket, always mark the “flexible rates” option to see a full calendar of flight options.

But how do you find the really, really cheap flights?

How much of your time, comfort, and space in your email inbox are you willing to sacrifice? The easiest way to find up-to-date travel deals is to enroll on the mailing list of travel deals aggregators like Airfarewatchdog. Here, you can organize your travel wishes into handy notifications of discounted airfares to your selection destinations. Easy enough, right?

Although a user-friendly, viable option, these mailing lists don’t always guarantee you’ll find a cheap flight that works with your schedule. In fact, you may find yourself waiting for deals that may not arrive for months. Take action and explore the wonderful world of budget airlines.

Here’s a little secret websites like Orbitz and Expedia don’t want you to know: often, budget airlines are deliberately suppressed from the search results. To get a fuller sense of what's out there, visit the budget airline website directly to find the best prices. Here’s an example for you: the cheapest flight on Kayak for a mid-September, round-trip flight from NYC to Copenhagen is $672. But that’s not actually the cheapest flight. Logging onto to Norwegian Airlines, a European budget carrier, the round-trip price suddenly drops to $502.

And if the searched-for fare is still too high? Consider calling the airline and reserving directly. A website has less flexibility than a human agent, who might be able to scan the available options and find you a better deal.

How much are you willing to sacrifice for a cheap flight?

We’re not asking you to sell your first-born. But a few risks can go a long way in the wild world of airfare booking. For example, by breaking up your itinerary into pieces and flying one-way, you can often reduce the total cost of a ticket.

Let’s say you want to go to Paris in September. A round-trip flight from NYC costs roughly $900, with a layover in Iceland. Now, let’s hack this flight with a one-way ticket. Norwegian Airlines, a European budget airline, operates out of JFK. Norwegian flights from NYC to Oslo cost $215 one-way. From there, a flight from Oslo to Paris via Ryanair, another budget carrier, goes for just $33. There, you just got to Paris for $248. Now, let’s see if we can get you back for a similar price. From Paris, fly to Oslo via Ryanair again, a $41 ticket; from Oslo back to NYC, it's another $264, bringing your return trip to $305. Suddenly, you've amassed almost $350 in savings compared to the original fare you were quoted.

Some websites like Kayak caught on to this means of travel and offer visitors “Hacker Fares,” which is just a conniving way of saying, 'here are some cheaper options we don’t want everyone to notice.'

These are just a few of our favorite airline hacks. Do you have some you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

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