Deal websites, apps, and newsletters are helpful, but here’s how to run your own searches
We all know someone who found an unbelievable air fare deal on what was already a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. (And we’re not jealous, we swear.) But the secret is that your friend probably didn’t just get lucky when they sat down to plan their trip. They instead probably heard about a great deal and impulsively bought it immediately. Or they performed a few tricks to make sure they had the cheapest flight. You can totally do this, too.
One of the great things about living in Atlanta is easy access to a major international airport, the world’s busiest in terms of amount of people who travel through it daily. It’s not too difficult to travel just about anywhere, and there can be quite a few good deals to be had, both domestically and internationally.
So how do you go about finding great fares before your friends do? It’s honestly not that hard. I’m one of those people who impulsively digs through airfares to find the best deals. I take it seriously—I even make spreadsheets. (I was probably a travel agent in a past life.) That process has led to a decent chunk of savings and a few great successes. I routinely get across the country for under $250, and I even scored a flight from Dallas to Sydney earlier this year for $845. Here are my tips for finding great flights for a great price:
Be prepared and be flexible
Sometimes you’ll have to act very quickly to pounce on a deal. (In the case of “mistake fares,” where an airline accidentally lists a fare far below market value, you could only have minutes to secure the low price.) Be ready to strike without a loose end or doubt left lingering in your mind. Know a few destinations you’d like to travel to, how many vacation days you can afford to use, when you can take time off, and the maximum you’re willing to spend on a flight. If you want to travel internationally, you’ll want make sure your passport is up to date and in usable condition.
Have an early warning system
There are a lot of resources out there to alert you about low fares. You’ll want to subscribe to newsletters, bookmark travel deal websites, and join certain Facebook groups to be notified quickly. Scott’s Cheap Flights is currently the ultimate newsletter for international deals. The free service is a good start, providing roughly a third of whatever travel deals founder Scott Keyes and his company find. But the paid version, at $39 per year, sends every deal and mistake fare your way. Keyes’ team doesn’t have special algorithms or access to an airline’s fares. Rather, they use many of the same techniques outlined here—just on a much larger scale, searching much more often.
Domestic flight deals are a little trickier. The deals sections of websites such as thepointsguy.com and theflightdeal.com occasionally list domestic fares, and you can set up alerts on flight savings apps such as Hopper. For the most part, however, you’ll need to hunt on your own. Which leads to . . .
Do your research
Familiarize yourself with Google Flights; it’s arguably the best tool at your disposal. You’ll need a destination in mind first. Enter the cities you’re traveling between—not airports, otherwise you may miss out. For example, if you’re looking for a trip to Tokyo, typing NRT for Narita International Airport won’t show you any flights for Haneda Airport, which may be cheaper.
Next, when selecting dates, you’ll see the lowest price available for each day. If the cost is highlighted in green, you’re getting a discount. Don’t accept any price blindly, however, as it could be for a Spirit flight, a basic economy fare, or another option that might not align with what you actually want. Investigate your find before you decide to commit. And know that even if a fare is green, it might not be the lowest possible price. If you frequently look at prices for the route you wan to take, you’ll quickly learn when a deal really is worth it and when you should hold out for a better fare.
You want to start looking for international flights roughly six to three months out and domestic ones about a month or two out. Try to time your searches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—occasionally you’ll find lower prices. When picking your travel dates, Fridays, Sundays, and anything near a holiday will be the most in demand, and you’ll pay a premium for them.
Know your hubs
Memorize each airline’s major focus cities (a hub, in the vernacular). If you’re traveling between one and another, the hub-to-hub airline will usually have the lowest nonstop fares. Also, for American, Delta, and United, there are often wide-body aircraft shuttling between the two hubs. A Boeing 777 is more comfortable than a Boeing 737, even in coach. And if you’re traveling in a premium cabin, you’re going to pay domestic prices for international seating.
Delta: Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Seattle/Tacoma
American: Dallas/Fort Worth, Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Phoenix, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York City
United: Chicago, Houston, Newark, Denver, San Francisco, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Guam, Tokyo
Southwest: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Oakland, Orlando, Phoenix
Don’t forget about Southwest
The only place to find Southwest Airlines’ fares is on their website. Not on Google Flights, not on Kayak or any other travel booking service. Coupled with free checked bags (two per person), you’ll often find this is the best bet price-wise for domestic flights. Atlanta is also hub for Southwest, which means there are a lot of flights from Hartsfield-Jackson to other U.S. destinations.
The flip side, however, is Southwest’s unique approach to air travel. People seem to love it or hate it. Power-flyers used to status and upgrades might not like joining the rest of us in the free-for-all that is open seating. There are no assigned seats, so if you want the best shot at getting a good seat, you’ll want to check-in for your flight exactly 24-hours before it takes off. A family with children, however, may love that finding seats together is generally much easier, especially with young children. One of Southwest’s best perks is family boarding, where groups traveling with children six and younger can board after Group A has been seated. Even if you’re in Group C, the last one, you can board before Group B. That means you’ll have roughly two-thirds of the plane open as you select your seats.
Know what you’re getting into
Ultra low-cost carriers, like Spirit and Frontier, do offer significant discounts and are great for some travelers. But if you don’t know what you’re agreeing to, you might face trouble later. For example, a checked bag on Spirit can range from roughly $21 if paid at time of booking to around $65 if a gate agents utters the dreaded, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to check that.” You can’t even avoid these fees with carry-ons. A bag too big to fit under your seat costs ~$26 at time of booking and ~$65 at the gate. Need to print your boarding pass? That’ll be $2 from a machine or $10 from a human—per pass. Want to pick a seat? Get ready to pay anywhere between $1 and $50 for the privilege. As you can see, any savings can quickly evaporate if you don’t read the rules and meticulously plan during booking.
To add to the confusion, the big U.S. carriers have started offering similar service under the guise of “basic economy.” These fares are the lowest, but you might give up seat selection, early boarding, and sometimes even overhead bin access. As with Spirit, if you know what you’re getting into and play by the rules, you can save some money. If you wing it, you may end up paying more than the standard coach fare.
Credit cards can help
If you do want to take advantage of those “basic economy” fares, Delta, American, and United will allow you to regain a few perks as long as you hold their credit cards. Instead of boarding in the last group, you’ll board with the first economy group. You regain your normal carry-on amount and the credit card’s free checked bag privileges. While this approach still won’t let you pick a better seat in advance or earn as many miles on your flight, it will take most of the bite out of a basic economy fare.
If you keep looking up the same flights on an airline’s website, eventually you might see the prices start to creep up. Don’t worry, that great deal still might be there. These websites can track you and have been known to raise prices on individuals who repeatedly check out a flight but don’t commit. By simply engaging private browser mode, or better yet, using a VPN, you can sometimes see lower prices. There is some debate as to the validity of this tip, but you won’t lose anything by adhering to it.
You should know that American Airlines, when booked directly through their website, allows you to place a hold on a reservation for free for 24 hours. If you see a deal with them but need to talk it over with someone first, lock in that price!
Don’t be afraid to get creative
You might have heard of “hacker fares.” This umbrella term can mean a few different things. Let’s say you want to travel from Atlanta to Los Angeles. You might find the cheapest deal by purchasing two one-way tickets—Delta out there and American back. Or maybe there’s a really good deal on Atlanta to Dallas, and another for Dallas to Los Angeles. You could buy two round trip tickets, ATL to DFW, and DFW to LAX.
Buying two one-way tickets on different airlines is the safest option. It doesn’t interfere with any airline’s contract of carriage, and you can’t get stranded without options. The downside is this doesn’t always save that much money.
Combining two round trips into one opens you up to the risk of getting stuck somewhere. In the example above, if your flight from Atlanta to Dallas was significantly delayed, causing you to miss your flight to Los Angeles, the airline isn’t under any obligation to get you to your final destination—even if the next leg of your trip is on the same carrier. Also, you won’t be able to check any bags through to L.A.; they’ll get spit out in Dallas. You would need to budget enough time to leave security, collect your bags, recheck them, and go back through security. But if you build in enough breathing room with a long layover, you’ll be fine. Sure, a six-hour wait might be rough, but it could save you hundreds, especially on cross-country or international flights. Get a day pass to an airport lounge, or better yet, a credit card that grants you free access, and you won’t mind a bit.
But don’t even bother with “hidden city ticketing”
Using the Atlanta to Los Angeles example, what if you see a great deal from Atlanta to San Francisco with a layover in L.A.? Would anyone really notice if you didn’t make that connection to SFO? Yes, yes they would. And if they want to, they can make things difficult. This strategy of making a layover your final destination is against airlines’ policies. You risk ticket cancellation, losing any miles or status you held, and even a possible ban from the airline. You also can’t check any bags (they’ll end up at your final destination, even if you gate-check), you can’t book a round-trip (once you miss a segment, your entire itinerary will be cancelled), and if your flight gets cancelled and you get rebooked onto a direct flight, you have no recourse. Likewise, if your flight gets diverted along the way, the airline will get you to the final destination, not the layover. This strategy should be reserved only for absolute emergencies; otherwise, it’s not worth the risk and hassle.
You’ve got this! Have a great flight and an even better vacation.