¨There is no anger in my act toward anyone other than myself–and maybe airlines.¨
While I am incredibly grateful for my life as a Fifty-Plus Nomad, I must admit that there are tasks that I find a bit tedious. Perhaps, the job that I have come to enjoy the least is buying airline tickets.
I always feel like I am playing a game of chess against a dominant competitor who changes the rules capriciously. No matter how much effort I make, the competitor will win. Somewhere out there is a better deal.
That said, following these twenty tips has saved me considerable money and frustration over the past several years:
Top Twenty Tips for Finding the Right Flight
The Most Important Rules for Finding Cheap Flights
- The most important rule for buying cheap airline tickets is to travel during the low season and be as flexible as possible when choosing your departure date. Purchasing tickets during the high season times can raise by 30% or more.
Here are the seasons that you will usually encounter when booking an airline ticket:
- High season: Summer season (in the Northern Hemisphere, June to Labor Day-early September). In the Southern Hemisphere: December-March), Christmas (Dec 18 – Jan 5), and the week before and after Easter.
- Low season: Winter (in the Northern Hemisphere, Jan 10-March 15. In the Southern Hemisphere: June-September).
- Shoulder season:All the rest of the year.
As a rule of thumb, the low season is when schools are in session or employees are working. The seasonality factor is especially relevant for traveling to or from high-traffic, seasonal destinations like Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific.
- Usually, it is best to fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The other days of the week are more likely to attract either businesspeople (Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and Friday) or leisure travelers (Friday and Saturday).
- While there is no fool-proof time to buy an airline ticket, most experts maintain that the best prices are usually available six to twelve weeks before the flight. (Note: My personal experience confirms this).
Other Useful Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flight
- If you have some flexibility on the date of departure, pick a date,and then look for the cheapest flight around that date. Most search engines and airline websites will allow you to check the price on several days around the date that you select.
- Compare the cost of tickets both one way and round trip. Sometimes, oddly, it can be cheaper to buy two one-way tickets than one round-trip ticket. One-way flights are often cheaper if you expect to spend more than a month on your trip.
- Most people are too obsessed with waiting to buy an airline ticket until they are sure that they will make the trip. If I see a reasonable airfare, I will book that flight. If I wait until my plans are firm, the ticket will cost me a lot more than the initial price. Yes, sometimes, I cancel the trip and end up eating the cost of the ticket. Most of the time, however, I take the flight and benefit from buying the ticket at its cheapest point.
Keep Up With Airfare Rules and Bargain Flights
- Sign up for flight deals mailing lists. These two sites — The Flight Deal and Holiday Pirates — provide handy flight deals from the US and Europe, respectively.
- Airlines are consistently changing their rules. Very few of the rules that I detailed in my Big Blue Marble Travel seminars ten years ago are applicable today. I encourage to subscribe to the following to keep up with the airline rule changes: Smarter Travel and Johnny Jet.
If You Want to Travel During the Holidays
- If you want to travel during the Christmas holidays, if possible, fly before December 18th and return after January 5th. Should you need to buy a ticket between these dates, the cheapest flights are on Christmas and New Year´s Day. (This also applies to Thanksgiving and Easter).
- For flights during the holidays, start looking for flights several months in advance. You will probably see a marked increase in price a month or two before the holiday season.
Tips for Avoiding Frustration
- If you get a cheap fare from an online travel agency like Expedia, etc., compare the price of the same ticket on the airline’s website. If the cost is the same (or similar) on the airline’s website, then you are better off booking the trip through the airline’s website, Buying tickets directly from the airlines is generally better than online travel agencies because:
- Online travel agencies often charge you an additional fee if you need to change the flight;
- In the case of a problem, it is easier to deal with the airline directly than through a large, third-party online travel agency; and
- Sometimes online travel agencies do not advise you of changes to flights. (If you do book through an online travel agency, confirm the flight’s time on the airline’s website a couple of days before the trip).
- Always double-check the date and time of your flights frequently. I did not follow this advice one time and paid for it. I bought a relatively inexpensive ticket (around Euro 100) from Lisbon to Madrid. When I got to the check-in on Sunday, I looked at the ticket and realized it was for a flight leaving on Saturday. Since I had to be in Madrid early the next morning to catch a flight back to Canada, I ended up buying a new ticket for 300 Euros to get to Madrid.
- You can cancel or change almost all airline tickets bought from the airlines for free within 24 hours after ticket purchase.
Times When It May Be Best to Not Buy the Cheapest Flight
- In the winter, keep the weather in mind when booking a flight. Generally, non-stop flights are preferable to connecting flights. By limiting the number of flights, you take, you also limit the number of weather systems that can affect your route. Also, it can be worthwhile to avoid some airports like San Francisco that are infamous for flight delays.
- Flights that involve multiple connections are not usually worth it. The more connections, the more chances that something will go wrong. Besides, the longer the flight time, the more stressful the trip becomes.
- Pay more to avoid trips that involve backtracking. About ten years ago, I flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Mexico City because the flight was $100 less expensive than a non-stop flight between Los Angeles and Mexico City. I also flew eight years ago from Miami to Newark to Washington DC to Buenos Aires to save $150. Both itineraries made the total trip time more than twice as long than the non-stop flight. Nowadays, I consider my time and sanity to be worth a bit more than these relatively small differences in fees. (That said, I may subject myself to these backtracking flights if the price difference is higher than $100 one-way.)
- Try to book non-stop flights when you return from a foreign country back to the US or Canada. Otherwise, you will have to go through customs, immigration, and security before making your connection. Also try to avoid connecting in another country. (I always fly directly from Mexico to Canada -even though flights through the US are slightly less expensive- to avoid going through US customs, immigration, and security).
When It May Be Better to Drive than Fly
- If you do not live in a city with a large airport, it may take less time and cost less to travel to the major airport via land transport (a car, bus, etc.) than to fly out of the nearby airport. (If you book a room at many hotels near large airport for a night, the hotel will allow you to park your car there for free or at a cheap price for the duration of your trip).
- It is also often worth considering driving (or even taking the bus or train) if you can get to your destination in less than five to six hours. (Cars, buses, and trains are particularly useful if your destination is in or near downtown).
- If I choose a flight with connections, I prefer a connection with at least one and a half hour or more layover. Many times, if a plane is delayed, it will be for an hour or less. By booking a longer connection window, you have a better chance of making the connection. Besides, many of the airports that have a lot of connecting flights are immense.
If you have even slightly limited mobility, ask the airline for a wheelchair, especially if you have a flight with less than an hour for a connection. Even though I have no mobility issues, I wish I had had a wheelchair in London-Heathrow and Miami International airports after walking thirty minutes to an hour to make a connecting flight.
Want to Learn More About Air Travel?
I explore in detail many other tips for airline travel throughout the following courses:
- Travel Economics 101
- Airline Tickets
- Travel Hacking: Using Frequent Flyer and other Loyalty Programs to Get the Most from the Travel Industry
- Airport Check-In, Security, Immigration, and Customs
The following are some lessons from these courses that you may want to read in detail:
- How Much Taxes Do Consumers Pay for Airfare?
- Why Do Airlines Change Their Schedules and Routes?
- What are Some of the Most Common Travel Hacks?
- Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles
- What are Frequent Flyer Miles?
- What is an Airfare Bundle?
- What is the Difference Between Budget and Traditional Airlines?
- How Do Round-the-World Airline Tickets Work?
- What Should You Do If an Airline Changes Your Flight?
- What to Do If an Airline Bumps You?
- How Can You Get an Airline Upgrade?
- How Can You Get Through Airline Security Easily?
- What Problems Occur at Flight Check-In?