Search tips for cheap airfare

When to buy
Best to buy your airfare at least 3 weeks before your flight, since the lowest fares often have a twenty-one-day advance-purchase requirement. For off-peak travel, you might as well as wait rather than booking too far in advance.

With international travel, when you go and when you shop tend to have a bigger effect on the price of your ticket. For instance, you can often find winter fares from the US to Europe for $300 or $400, but if you’re traveling when the cobblestones are warm, that same fare is likely to cost $800 or more. In the fall, prices drop again–not quite as low as the winter specials, but still a bargain compared to summer fares.

That means you can save a lot of money by traveling during your destination’s low season or “shoulder season,” which is a month or two just before and after peak travel times. What time of year is considered low season varies; it’s summer in the southern hemisphere in January and February, so that’s when fares will be higher. But weather patterns can also affect the price of travel, so for some destinations, heat waves or monsoon season can cause prices to drop.

If you can’t avoid traveling during high season, the best way to save money is to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible. For off-season travel, that’s not necessarily the best strategy, since you might miss a winter or fall sale. But for peak travel, try to buy your ticket at least six months before your trip. Once the cheap seats sell out, you have to pay a higher price; the airlines don’t lower fares when they expect their planes to be full.

Catching a sale
Fares go on sale after peak travel times: early fall, the beginning of the year, and after spring break

Tweaking your search
Look for flights on off-peak days. You’re more likely to find low fares if you can fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday (and sometimes Thursday or Saturday), since these tend to be lighter travel days. It’s generally more expensive to fly on a Monday, Friday, or Sunday, because that’s when business travelers typically take to the skies.

Foreign travel sites
Foreign sites are worth checking if you need a ticket that originates abroad or if you’re traveling from one foreign country to another.

  • Opodo compares fares from hundreds of airlines flying to and around Europe.
  • Skyscanner
  • Europebyair.com sells $99 “flight passes” you can use on participating carriers to fly between cities all over Europe (you need one pass for each flight); the site’s route map shows which city pairs qualify.
  • Vueling offers cheap airfare (as low as €30) for flying within Europe.
  • Budget Airlines Within Europe compiled by Rick Steves

Going one way
For one-way tickets, your best bet is ITASoftware.com or Kayak.com, which tend to turn up more flight options than travel agencies or the airlines do.

You should also check whether Southwest or JetBlue flies the route you need, since they sell all their tickets as one-way flights. Their fares don’t necessarily show up on other travel sites, so you have to search their sites directly, but you may have to be flexible about your airport choices.

You should also check round-trip prices, since it may be cheaper to use half of a round-trip ticket instead of buying an expensive one-way fare. Although some carriers technically prohibit this practice in their contract of carriage–they generally have no way of enforcing this rule, and it’s not clear that it’s even legal. Just be sure that the first half of the ticket is the one you’re going to use.

One trip but multiple cities
For multicity or open-jaw trips, ITASoftware.com has one of the best search tools for trips that involve multiple stops.

Foreign air passes
Many carriers sell special air passes to foreigners, designed to make a whirlwind tour of that country or region more economical than buying multiple plane tickets. Air passes aren’t always a bargain, especially if you don’t end up using all the flight segments you paid for, so map out your plans carefully before you commit to a schedule only a rock star could endure.

Foreign air passes often must be purchased through a travel agent in your home country. You pay a set price for a designated number of flight segments, which you typically have to fly within a certain time period (often, a month or 21 days).

Asia
Cathay Pacific: All Asia Pass
Japan Airlines: Yokoso (Welcome) Japan Air Pass
Thai Air: Discover Thailand/ASEAN Hip Hop Air Pass

Australia
Qantas: Aussie Air Pass or Boomerang Pass

Europe
Scandinavian Airlines: Visit Scandinavia/Europe Air Pass

South America
Aerolineas Argentinas: Visit Argentina or South America Pass

Some of these tips are from Susan Stellin’s How to Travel Practically Anywhere: The Ultimate Planning Guide

Update as of January 8, 2011: For fares from AA and other airlines that do not appear on Kayak.com, go to http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/01/08/travel/08air.html. Here’s an excerpt:

Start with ITA Software, which provides the technological backbone for many air fare shopping sites. It offers an easy way to narrow down the cheapest days to fly by allowing anyone to scan an entire month’s worth of fares for the cheapest rate. Click on “search airfares now” in the middle of the home page, then enter your departure date and destination and select “see calendar of lowest fares” to see which travel days yield the lowest rates. Travelers can also narrow searches by the number of stops and length of trip. But to book the actual ticket, users must go to another site, like the airline’s.

Cover your bases by adding a so-called meta-search site like Kayak.com, Fly.com or Farecompare.com, which don’t sell plane tickets but search hundreds of travel sites at once. Doing this will give you an idea of the best rates available from various sites. Each meta-search site configures its technology and accesses fares slightly differently, which can affect results. The sites also tend to differentiate themselves through special partnerships. Kayak.com, for example, receives fares from ITA Software; Amadeus, a global distribution system; and some airlines directly, including American and Delta. FareCompare licenses air fare data from more than 500 airlines via the Airline Tariff Publishing Company, which consolidates and distributes airline fares worldwide.

Before you hit the buy button, check out Airfarewatchdog.com, a site with actual people who manually search for fares and will sometimes uncover cheaper fares than the other sites. It often captures sales from Allegiant and Southwest, as well as special, last-minute fares that airlines often save for their own Web sites, like “JetBlue Cheeps” which are put on sale on Tuesdays via Twitter and listed only at jetblue.com/cheeps.

For trips to Europe, consider Momondo.com, a Danish travel search site that scours the airlines’ own Web sites as well as online agencies that focus on low-cost carriers, like LyddAir, which operates flights from Lydd Airport in Southeast Kent in Britain to Le Touquet in France. It also compares rates with more than 4,000 high-speed train routes across Europe — a valuable service, as trains are often more convenient in Europe than planes. One caveat: Because of the way Momondo pulls fares, it may show expired fares in its results.

To help evaluate prices, consider Bing.com, which offers a Price Predictor that uses algorithms to determine whether a fare is likely to rise or fall in the next seven days; this can help when trying to decide whether to buy now or wait for a better rate. Students can also consult STATravel.com or StudentUniverse.com, which offer special deals for anyone enrolled in college or graduate school.

And for those who care most about the quality of the flight experience, there are a couple of notable mentions. Rather than a long list of fares, Hipmunk.com sorts fares according to an “agony” index that factors in price, length of flight and number of connections. In a similar vein, InsideTrip.com, evaluates flights by 11 criteria, including legroom, aircraft age and on-time performance.

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