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11 Ways To Save Money When Booking Flights with Cash

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Whether you’re working toward a revenue requirement for elite airline status or you can’t find award availability for your travel dates, sometimes you have to pay for a ticket with cash rather than miles or points. As TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele explains, there are several ways to keep costs down when you’re booking paid airfare — read on for the details.

Most of us don’t have an unlimited supply of points and miles, which is one of several reasons why even the most passionate award travel enthusiast occasionally books flights with cash rather than rewards. In today’s post, I want to share some tips and tricks for booking revenue tickets without breaking the bank.

Why Book Revenue Tickets?

There are several good reasons to pay cash for your airfare — even when you have the points and miles necessary for an award flight. First, award flights might not be available when you need them, or the price of the award may be too high. It rarely makes sense to book an award ticket at anything other than the lowest mileage rates, often called Saver levels.

In addition, some programs impose such high fuel surcharges on award tickets, in which case you may be better off using dollars rather than miles (I’m looking at you, British Airways). And ironically, fuel prices are at historic lows, which has resulted in some astonishingly low airfares, even in business and first class.

And that’s not mentioning the need to meet revenue requirements to achieve and maintain elite status in programs like Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus. This leads many award travel enthusiasts to pay for a significant portion of their flights out of pocket, but it’s worth mentioning that there are ways to enjoy elite-like perks without holding airline status.

Here are 11 of my favorite tips and tricks for booking revenue flights:

1. Price Flight Legs Separately

A recent policy change by American, Delta and United has resulted in travelers being quoted higher prices when they search for multi-city bookings. While travelers were once shown the lowest price for each leg of their trip, in many cases they now see much higher fares.

For more information, read Emily McNutt’s post, Why You’ll Want to Avoid Multi-City Itineraries. In addition to often yielding lower fares, pricing flight legs separately allows you to mix and match carriers to find the best combination of both price and schedule for your needs.

2. Check Both One-Way Flights and Round-Trips

Years ago, a one-way ticket would usually cost you an astronomical price — often more than the price of a round-trip. Thankfully, most airlines have largely done away with this pricing model, though instances still occur. For example, here’s the pricing for a one-way trip on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Birmingham, England.

This one-way flight costs 329 euros.
This one-way flight costs 329 euros.

And here’s the price for the same flight as part of a round-trip ticket:

The price of a round-trip is less than half of that of a one-way.
It’s less than half the price for a round-trip ticket!

Clearly, you’d be better off purchasing a round-trip ticket, even if you didn’t use the return flight.

3. When Buying Multiple Tickets, Check Prices Individually

Another insidious trick that nearly all airlines use to get you to pay more is to show the highest price available for all tickets in the same party. So if an airline has four tickets available at a low price and you’re booking a reservation for five people, you’ll see the higher price for all five tickets. For example, the United reservation below is for five people, at a price of $2,520.50 or about $504 per person.

5x ua

Now here’s the same flight booked for four people, but at $1,696.40, or $424.10 per person:

4x ua

Here, this party of five could save $320 by booking four tickets at $424.10 each, and then making a single separate reservation for $504.10.

4. Earn a Credit Card Category Bonus 

An easy way to reduce the effective cost of an airline ticket is to use a credit card that offers a category bonus. Most airline credit cards offer 2x miles for ticket purchases, but there are some exceptions. For example, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card offers 3 miles per dollar on Alaska purchases, while the Virgin America Visa Signature Card and Virgin America Premium Visa Signature Card from Comenity Bank offer 3x rewards on eligible spending with the airline. In addition, the no-fee JetBlue Card offers 3x points for JetBlue purchases, and the JetBlue Plus Card offers an outstanding 6x.

Alternatively, you could use a travel rewards credit card that isn’t affiliated with a single airline, such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card, which offers 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines, both foreign and domestic. The Citi ThankYou Premier Card also offers 3x points on travel purchases, including those made with the airlines, while the Citi Prestige Card offers 3x for all airline and hotel charges. For more information, see my post, The 5 Best Cards for Airfare Purchases in 2016.

5. Utilize Credit Cards with Airline Travel Statement Credits

The Citi Prestige Card's $250 annual air travel credit can be used toward airfare.
The Citi Prestige Card’s $250 annual air travel credit can be used toward airfare.

The Citi Prestige Card offers a $250 annual airline purchase credit that covers any purchases made with airlines, including airfare.

Several Amex cards, including the Platinum Card from American Express and the Premier Rewards Gold Card, also offer an airline fee credit, but these can’t be used on airfare. However, you can use them toward airline gift cards purchased directly from the carrier, which you could then use to book a flight. For more information, read TPG Points & Miles Editor Sarah Silbert’s post, Maximizing Benefits with the Amex Platinum Card.

6. Look for a Companion Ticket Offer

Several credit cards offer some form of companion ticket, which lets a friend or loved one fly with you for (almost) free. The best options include the certificate you’ll earn upon each account anniversary with the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express and the $99 (plus taxes and fees) companion ticket featured by the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

7. Report Service Failures

On a recent United flight, the Wi-Fi wasn’t working and I wasn’t given a choice of meal in first class. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I notified United of these service failures and was rewarded with a $100 voucher toward a future flight. Plus, it’s doing the airline a service to take the time and give your honest feedback in response to legitimate problems.

8. Utilize Special Discounts

See if you’re eligible for any of the various discounts offered by airline. For example, United offers a 5% discount to veterans as part of its Veterans Advantage program, while Southwest offers senior discounts to those over 65 when they book tickets over the phone. In addition, most airlines will allow children less than two years old to travel on an adult’s lap for free on domestic flights, or for 10% of the adult’s fare on most international flights. And children 2-11 can receive a 25% discount on international carriers such as Lufthansa and Singapore.

9. Book Early

Calendar travel planner schedule featured shutterstock 287916683
Plan to book far in advance, especially for peak travel dates. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The best deals are always available with advanced notice. When it comes to travel during the holidays and other times of peak demand, it can help to book as early as possible — up to 11 months before departure. During lower-demand periods, just a few months of advance notice is often the sweet spot.

With most carriers, the prices on unsold tickets tend to rise sharply once you get within three weeks of departure, and even more so within a week. I also found that JetBlue’s premium transcontinental Mint service must be booked at least two months in advance to find the lowest prices, which are a bargain at $599 each way.

10. Consider All Carriers

Many travelers will perform a quick search on an online travel agency website and choose the best fare, but they’ll often miss ultra-low-cost carriers that may not offer their tickets through these travel agents. To make sure that I’m considering all possible options, I like to go the Wikipedia page for my origin and destination airports and see which carriers are offering service on these routes that I might not have known about. It can also help to consider alternate airports nearby, rather than just the largest one.

11. Take All Fees into Account

Baggage Claim Featured
Consider checked baggage fees and other add-ons when calculating the total cost of your ticket. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The airline industry knows that travelers can be extremely price-sensitive, and it’s grown accustomed to offering the lowest base fare possible and then piling on extra fees. Before choosing one of these fares, consider all of the fees that you might have to pay, including fees for checked and even carry-on bags, as well as any seat selection fees necessary for your group to sit together. Thankfully, most airline credit cards offer a free checked bag.

What are your favorite tricks for saving money on paid airfare?

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