Travel Tips

How to Get the Cheapest Airfare

An expert shares his secrets.

By Bill Wiatrak November 25, 2015

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If you’re a novice at booking travel, it’s easy to get a little intimidated when putting together a flight or vacation package. There’s a proliferation of travel sites whose names sound remarkably alike, all offering the lowest prices. Which one do you pick?

If your itinerary is a simple round-trip flight, you might get lucky on the first or second attempt to plug in your dates and destination. But if you really want the lowest fare, be prepared to roll up your sleeves and work for it. To illustrate what I mean, let’s talk about a ticket I bought last night. I was looking for an inexpensive flight to visit San Francisco and Los Angeles. I also wanted to visit Sequoia National Park, which is between the two cities. I only had a few days for the trip, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time waiting in airports or route backtracking. The solution: Fly to one city, drive to the other and leave the car in the final city.

I started with Skyscanner. The site is great if you’re doing a simple round-trip or one-way fare. While it doesn’t have the ability to put together multiple destinations, it does work with low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit, serving as a third party to the company that you’re actually buying the ticket from. In other words, the website takes no responsibility for price changes or problems that might arise.

Spirit and Frontier Airlines often will pop up as the cheapest choices domestically. Before you book with one of these airlines, you should be aware that the fares they offer are “unbundled.” This means you get a seat and nothing else. If you want to bring more than a personal item, pick your seat, or have a snack, you’ll have to pay for it.

These carriers will have lower prices for certain times of the day as well. Often, the cheapest flight will have some stopovers or take off in the middle of the night, but that’s not always the case. Since I was flying into one airport and out of another, the only sensible way to book the flight was as two one-way trips.

Cheapoair has been my booking site favorite for several years, but lately I’ve noticed that they don’t give me all the choices that Skyscanner does, and I’ve recently had terrible customer support from them. However I’m not one to jump ship without giving them a few more chances. What I like about this website is the ability to add multiple destinations. Sometimes this produces a ridiculously high fare. Recently, I took a trip to Madagascar and Namibia from Houston. Booking the trip as one ticket made the fare four times the price of booking a trip to South Africa and then doing separate tickets from Johannesburg.

However, when I booked a trip to Sri Lanka and the Maldives via Dubai, the fare was lower than just a ticket to Dubai. How is that possible? Who knows? It’s just like the internet or internal combustion engines—as long as it works, I don’t care how. In regards to my California trip, Cheapoair’s cheapest option was over $300 and required that I spend the night at the Denver airport. I don’t even want to spend the night in Denver, let alone the airport.

I wanted to get my fare to under $200 for both flights from Houston, and most of the results I was turning up were almost double that. The key to cheap tickets is to search multiple sites and to be flexible with your plan. Most flight search engines have a button that allows you to try different dates without having to re-enter all your information. Looking at the stops and times will save you money in the long run.

For example, let’s say you find a cheap flight that gets you into a city late. It’s smart to look at the earliest flight the following day as well. If you have to spend the night in the airport to catch a connecting flight or book a hotel at midnight, you might be better off with an early flight that gets you there the next morning without the misery of staying at the airport or the added expense of a hotel you didn’t really have time to enjoy.

Another website that I find very useful is Travelzoo. It’s worth signing up for their email list just to get their Top20 weekly email. Besides great deals on packaged trips and last-minute bookings, they also have a SuperSearch feature on their website. It’s similar to Skyscanner in that it’s a third-party site, but it lets you choose which websites to search. In other words, you enter your travel dates, destination and click on the icons of your preferred travel sites. You can choose from their list without having to retype your information repeatedly. Each website is opened in its own tab, so it’s easy to click off the expensive results and then compare the others.

Keep in mind that while some sites will give you the total price with taxes and fees, others, like eDreams, add fees on after the fact. Also, make sure to look at the results carefully, because some sites will give you alternate dates with a lower price. Pay attention to the stopover times as well. It may not be worth spending 12 hours in an airport to save a few dollars.

In my booking, I grabbed the Spirit flight to LA because it was direct, early and only $73 through Expedia. Frontier had the best cheap flight back from San Francisco but if I flew back a day early I could use their 25 percent off coupon and the fare was already considerably lower. It’s usually worthwhile to do a coupon search online before you complete your booking. In this case, I saved $85 by just plugging in a code I found online. Voila! I got my ticket for $125, getting me $3 under my goal of $200. It could have been even less if I wasn’t going around the Christmas holidays.

So, that’s the secret. Be flexible, do your research, travel light, and use the internet to find coupons, promotion codes and low-cost travel websites. Anyone can do it. Cheaper travel makes for more travel.

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