Everything You Need to Know About Buying Plane Tickets
Searching for airfare can often feel like going into battle — one in which only those armed with a lot of time on their hands win.
Words by Brooke Porter Katz
THE SEARCH: WHERE TO EVEN BEGIN?
It all starts with Google Flights. Five of the experts we interviewed named the search engine among their top picks because…
1. You can be indecisive.
Not sure where or when you want to go exactly? Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica and Jamie Larounis of the Forward Cabin both love that flights are searchable by region (“Europe”) and a loose time frame (“a one- week trip in the next six months”). Being flexible can save you major dough, too.
2. You can be lazy.
Its flight-tracking tool sends price alerts straight to your inbox. JL Johnson, a senior correspondent for Airline Reporter, likes that it keeps an eye on specific flights as well as city pairs (where you’re flying to and from).
3. And still be super-thorough.
“It’s fast, comprehensive, and very accurate,” says Brian Kelly, founder of the Points Guy. Use “flight insights” to adjust results to find cheaper departure dates and compare prices at nearby airports.
MORE WAYS TO TRACK
Southwest is the only airline that doesn’t share pricing with Google Flights, so set up alerts with the experts’ next-favorite, Airfarewatchdog, or check the airline directly.
THE MILEAGE GAME: PLAY THE FIELD
Open mileage accounts with every airline you fly so you can passively earn miles and points without letting it run your life. “The perks from one specific airline don’t make die-hard loyalty worthwhile,” says Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt. That said, try to concentrate your points in as few accounts as possible to build your balance quicker.
Choose the right credit card — and charge everything (as long as you can pay it off every month in full). You’ll want a card that earns airline miles or, even better, flexible points that can be transferred to multiple airlines. Kelly recommends ones that are part of the Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards programs.
Beware: The Unbundling
Airlines have been increasingly “unbundling” their offerings, which means they’re charging rock-bottom base prices and then tacking on extra for seat assignments, baggage, food, and entertainment. And it’s not just the discount airlines, either. Even the legacy carriers like American, Delta, and United don’t necessarily provide you all the perks that you’ve come to expect.
How one discount airline ticket (on a long-haul international flight) adds up:
1 checked bag: $45 each way
Seat selection: $45 each way
Hot meal: $45 each way
Total: an additional $270
Be prepared to pony up more as you go through the booking process — especially when flying a discount airline, whose prices “may come close or pass those of legacy carriers,” Larounis says. However, if you’re cool with skimping on extras, discount is definitely the way to go.
4 MONEY-SAVING TIPS YOU’VE NEVER CONSIDERED
1. Take two vacations for one airfare.
Many carriers — including Emirates, Finnair, Icelandair, and TAP Air Portugal — have convenient layover programs that allow you to spend a day (or more) in midpoint hubs en route to your final destination. Laura Leebove, a Brooklyn-based copywriter, recently took advantage of Icelandair’s free stopover. “I kicked off a trip to Europe with two days in Iceland. We explored Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, then went off to London!” she says.
2. Be ready to strike.
Sign up for mistake-fare notifications with the Flight Deal and Secret Flying. “Airlines sometimes advertise the wrong price, so as long as you’re on the ball, you can find insanely cheap flights,” Kepnes says. Hobica once scored a round-trip ticket from Hilton Head to Los Angeles for — get this — 11 cents.
3. Fly to the next-best city.
For example, if Paris is on your bucket list, head to a nearby locale and book an intra-Europe flight or train. Kepnes once got to Paris by flying to Dublin first and hopping a budget flight to the City of Light, saving him $240.
4. Mix and match.
Pair two one-way tickets — even from different airlines and airports — to create an itinerary that could end up being less than a round trip. On international flights, this will be cheaper 18 percent of the time and offer an average savings of $92, according to data from Hopper.
AND ONE TO AVOID AT ALL COSTS:
Don’t be tempted to try a “hidden city” flight. That’s when you buy a connecting flight that goes through your desired destination and skip the final leg. “Airlines keep track of travelers who do this and aren’t shy to ban folks,” Johnson says. Plus, if you’ve booked it as a round trip, your return will automatically be canceled.
EXACTLY WHEN TO BOOK
7+ months out: Not yet! Airlines set prices conservatively, which means it’s too early for deals.
6 months out: Start tracking international airfare.
4 to 5 months out: Book international airfare.
3 months out: Start tracking domestic airfare.
1 to 2 months out: Book domestic airfare.
7 days out: Forget about scoring a deal. Airlines know that business travelers often need to book on short notice, and they adjust prices upward accordingly (though poorly performing routes may have flash sales).
TUESDAYS: DEBUNKING THE MYTH
You may have heard that the ultimate unicorn deals can be found on Tuesdays. No such luck. According to Kelly, “Computerized revenue management has advanced to the point where airfares can change by the hour, even by the minute.” Furthermore, it depends on where and when you’re traveling. A 2018 study by CheapAir.com that analyzed 917 million flight searches reported that the average lowest fares by day of the week are all within $2 of one another — a measly 0.6 percent difference.
Abide by the booking timeline above and let Google Flights track your itinerary, and when a good deal lands in your inbox — jump (especially if the flight looks full!).
THE NO-FLY LIST
Do everything in your power to avoid trips during the costliest times.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays:
Best days of the week to fly. “Fewer people travel those days,” says Hobica.
Sunday, Monday, Friday:
Worst days of the week to fly. These are popular times for business and leisure travelers alike. “There’s little incentive to lower prices on these days or to include them in sales,” says Johnson.
Worst days for holiday travel:
Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Sunday after Thanksgiving, Friday before Christmas week, day after New Year’s Day.
Worst times for a vacation:
Spring break in March, and the month of June. “It’s better to wait until later in the season for a summer getaway,” says Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper.
Best time to book for December holidays:
About 83 days before departure.
Best time to book for Thanksgiving:
Before the week of Halloween.
Q&A Lightning Round
Q. Better deals at alternate airports instead of major hubs?
A. Consider all options. “Hopper data shows that an alternate airport may save you an average of 10 percent,” says Surry.
Q. Buy multiple tickets at once or one at a time?
A. One at a time, usually. “Sometimes if there’s only one seat at the lowest fare and you’re searching for two or more, they will all be priced at the next highest available fare,” Hobica says. But, hassle alert: In the case of cancellations, Kelly says, separate tickets may cause families to get rebooked on different alternative flights.
Q. Global entry: Worth it?
A. Totally. For $100 (some credit cards will reimburse you), you’ll get TSA PreCheck for five years and shorter lines at customs. In June 2018, 93 percent of passengers waited less than five minutes.
Q. Search for flights using incognito mode?
A. The jury is out. Some say price changes you see are simply because fares continuously fluctuate throughout the day.
Q. Switch the country of origin and currency on an airline’s website?
A. Yes, it works — sometimes! (Two experts had success on Norwegian, where Kelly says you may save as much as 30 percent on a fare.) “Remember to pay using a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees,” he advises — though you may need to enlist Google Translate’s help with the booking process.
About the author: After more than a decade on staff at magazines such as Travel + Leisure and Martha Stewart Living, Brooke Porter Katz relocated with her family to Mexico City last year. Her work has recently appeared in WSJ. Magazine, Sunset, Bloomberg Pursuits, AFAR, Wine Enthusiast, and Surface, among others.