Airplane flying air travel plane Think you need a vacation now? Just wait until you're scouring dozens of booking sites, aggregators and airline Web sites to find cheap tickets for your next trip — then you'll really be ready for a week off!
Unfortunately for weary travelers, there's no real shortcut to finding cheap airfare. As with any purchase, you need to shop around to get the best deal — by trying different booking sites, altering your dates and waiting until just the right time to purchase. But if you're willing to put in a little time and effort, you could save big on your next flight.
1. Buy Early Especially during peak travel periods, making reservations late in the game can cost you a lot of money. Airline ticket prices typically go up in the last two weeks before flying, so if you're planning ahead, try to make the call before this deadline. And if you're traveling internationally, you'll want to book even earlier — from three to six months in advance — for the best deals. However, sometimes you can get lucky if you wait, which brings us to:
2. Buy Late Often you can buy tickets at the very last minute for a great price, if the airlines have failed to fill their planes. Many airlines offer weekly newsletters that feature their best last-minute deals. You can also find many of them listed in our Travel Deals section, or at specialized sites like LastMinuteTravel.com. If you can stand the suspense, and if you are flexible with your itinerary and dates, you can find fantastic money-savers to very attractive travel destinations. For more info, see Best Bets for Booking a Last-Minute Trip.
3. Shop Around No matter how good it sounds, you should never book the first fare you see. Start your search by checking a few of the major online travel providers, like Travelocity.com,Google flights, aggregator sites like TripAdvisor Flights or consolidators like CheapTickets.com. Airfarewatchdog is another good source of low fares. Checking these sites will give you a preliminary idea of which airlines fly your particular itinerary, what the going rate is and what restrictions might apply. Armed with this information, you can head directly to the airline Web site to see if the same flights are any cheaper (some airlines guarantee to offer the lowest possible fares on their own Web sites). While you're there, check to see if the airline is running any sales or promotions to your destination.
If you don't see anything in your preferred price range, don't be afraid to bide your time and watch the fares for a bit. Most major booking sites have alert features that will e-mail you when your fare drops to a price you're willing to pay.
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4. Know When to Buy The hardest part of booking a flight is knowing when to stop tracking fares and make that final purchase. If you're flying within the U.S. or to select international destinations, Bing Travel ( Bing.com/travel ) can help you reach that decision, offering fare predictions for most major cities. Just plug in your itinerary and the site will advise you either to book now or to wait, depending on whether the fare is expected to rise or drop. Another useful site is the aforementioned Kayak.com, which offers fare history graphs for domestic and international flights, allowing you to see whether your fare is headed in an upward or downward direction.
Finally, keep in mind that many airlines launch fare sales on Tuesdays — so if you decide to buy on a Monday, you may be gnashing your teeth when your destination goes on sale the next day.
5. Be Flexible If you live close to more than one airport, check out the fares from all of the airports near you. Many online fare searching engines will ask you if you are willing to depart from or arrive in more than one city. Yes! Also, experiment with different travel dates; shifting your itinerary by a month, a week or even a few days can make a significant difference in fares. You'll usually find the lowest fares for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Keep in mind that just about every destination has a peak season — and if you can fly any other time of year, you'll often pay significantly less.
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6. Don't Forget the Discounters As their nickname suggests, discount airlines can save you a bundle, but they're not always easy to find. Luckily for consumers, discounters are cropping up more frequently on aggregators and booking sites (Kayak now offers fares for JetBlue, Spirit and AirTran, for example) — but there are still a few holdouts, such as Southwest and Allegiant Air, whose fares can't be found anywhere but their own Web sites. If you're traveling outside the U.S., don't forget to check the international discount airlines as well.
7. Use Your Frequent Flier Miles Use Your Frequent Flier MilesWhy pay a fare at all when you can use your frequent flier miles? Although redeeming miles has gotten more difficult in recent years, it's still a good option to consider, particularly if you're booking early; airlines designate a very limited number of seats on each flight as eligible for award travel, and these seats go quickly. For more on redeeming your miles, check out Frequent Flier Miles: How to Use 'Em, Not Lose 'Em.
8. Get a Refund When Fares Go Down If fares go down after you've purchased your ticket, ask for a refund! You may not always get one, but policies vary by airline — and many do not publicize the fact that they will refund you the difference if prices go down. It can't hurt to ask.
Yapta.com will track flights for you after you purchase and notify you if the fares go down. Orbitz.com has a Price Assurance guarantee, which entitles you to a refund if another Orbitz user books the same itinerary for less.
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9. Consider an Air Pass In order to promote tourism in their countries, many national airlines offer air passes at reduced rates for tourists. If you're planning to do extensive travel in one country or region, an air pass might be your most cost-effective option. For example, Qantas offers an Aussie AirPass for travel throughout Australia. For more information, see our guide to air passes. Planning an even bigger trip? Look into around-the-world tickets and fares.
10. Check for Deals and Discounts Don't forget to check our comprehensive Travel Deals for the latest fare sales — we post new ones every weekday. If you or your traveling companions are senior citizens or children, you'll want to take a peek at our senior and family areas as well.