Top 10 Strategies to Find Cheap Airfare

Apr 10, 2019

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I prefer to use my points and miles rather than pay cash whenever possible. But sometimes I find airfare deals that are so good that it makes sense to pay for my tickets rather than use rewards, especially when my redemption value falls below TPG’s valuations. As award travel enthusiasts, we’re also often asked to help find cheap airfare for our friends and family.

Unfortunately, purchasing airfare can be more complicated than buying just about anything else. Airlines are the masters of creating confusing pricing schemes, and it can take considerable skill to pay the least amount possible. To demystify the process and help you snag a great price on your next trip, today I want to go through my favorite strategies to find affordable airfare.

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It’s worth noting that these strategies may not always apply given your desired route(s) or planned date(s) of travel. Maybe there’s a single flight option on the one date that works with your schedule, or you could be looking to fly an airline that doesn’t even offer first class. Every situation is unique, so I encourage you to bookmark this page for future reference any time you’re looking to purchase a flight.

With that out of the way, here are my top ten strategies for finding the best price on airfare.

1. Start With a Good Flight Search Engine

When shopping for a flight, the first thing you’ll want to do is figure out which airlines operate a given route and get a ballpark rate on the major carriers. Instead of individually visiting these airlines’ websites, start by searching a site that will produce results from numerous airlines and various combinations of carriers. You can begin with Expedia or one of the many other online travel agencies it owns such as Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire and CheapTickets. You could also search on Google Flights, which is an extremely powerful search engine (especially when planning award travel). Just bear in mind that it’s not a booking platform, so you can’t actually ticket a reservation through the site.

2. Check Carriers That Don’t Appear on Third Party Sites

Don’t forget that many third-party booking platforms exclude certain carriers like Frontier. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

One of the main weaknesses of online search engines is that they often won’t list the flights of all carriers, including Southwest and some ultra-low cost carriers like Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier. The best free resource to find out which of these carriers serves a particular airport is actually Wikipedia. Go to the Wikipedia page for an airport and look for a section labeled “Airlines and destinations.” You should find a list of every airline that flies to that airport and all of the nonstop destinations the airport serves. Once you know about any carriers that didn’t appear in your initial searches, you can look for flights directly on the carriers’ websites.

3. Search One-way and Round-trip Flights

It used to be that most round-trip tickets were cheaper than purchasing two one-way flights. That isn’t always the case now. JetBlue and Southwest, for example, price their tickets on a one-way basis; a round-trip flight is simply the sum of the two one-way prices. As a result, you’ll want to be sure to check one-way flight prices as well in case you get the best round-trip deal by pairing two one-way tickets, potentially on two different airlines.

Note that Google flights is a terrific tool to show you when separate one-ways could be the cheapest option.

Just be aware that booking two one-way flights does carry some risk if you need to cancel or change your trip. If you book your outbound and return flights on different carriers and both charge $200 change or cancellation fees, you’ll be hit twice if you need to adjust your travel plans. Changing both ends of a round-trip flight booked on a single airline would only incur that fee once.

4. Search One Seat at a Time

There’s a little known quirk in how airlines price seats that can result in much higher prices when searching for multiple passengers versus a single ticket. Airlines place their inventory in fare classes (sometimes called “buckets”) that aren’t always clearly visible to consumers. For example, there might be only three seats left in a fare bucket for $300 each, and the next higher bucket might be $400 per ticket. However, if you were to search for four seats, every one would fall into the $400 fare bucket.

By searching for a single seat, you’ll see one of the three remaining $300 tickets. With a little trial and error, you’d then know to book one reservation with three tickets at $300 each and another reservation for the fourth ticket at $400. In this example, applying this simple strategy would save you $300 from what you’d pay by booking all four seats on a single reservation.

To make this a bit easier, many airlines will even tell you how many are left at that price, like this example from Miami (MIA) to New York-LaGuardia (LGA).

If you had searched for three or four tickets, the price of that one-way flight jumps to $249.30, an increase of $56 per passenger.

TPG Editor Nick Ewen used this when booking intra-South Africa flights a couple of years ago and saved nearly $100 off a single one-way ticket, so it’s definitely something to consider the next time you’re booking a trip.

(Note that this trick also works when you need to book multiple award flights that aren’t all available at the lowest mileage levels.)

5. Search Alternate Airports

Sometimes the cost of a flight is just so high that it can make sense to use your second or perhaps third choice of airports. For example, you probably know about the New York area’s three largest airports: New York-JFK, New York-LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark (EWR). However, did you know that Long Island McArthur (ISP), Westchester (HPN) and Stewart (SWF) are also in the region? Many airlines allow you to search all airports in a region by specifying the destination as the city (e.g. NYC) instead of a particular airport. The ITA Matrix tool is another good way to search nearby if you don’t know an area well, and Google Flights has a “Nearby airports” option to help in this search as well.

6. Leverage Elite Status

You could use your elite status to book a cheaper flight but then actually depart on a more convenient (and expensive) flight. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Having elite status won’t let you purchase tickets at a discount, but you might use it to save money another way. Having elite status with most carriers will allow you to standby for earlier flights or perform same-day confirmed flight changes. This could allow you to book a discounted flight at an inconvenient time, only to change it to the flight you want at no additional cost. Even if you don’t have elite status, the charge to stand by or make a same-day confirmed flight change may be less than the fare difference between the flight you want and the cheapest option that day.

For details on the major airlines’ elite status programs, check out the following guides:

7. Use the Right Credit Card

The right credit card will offer you significant savings on airfare in a variety of different ways. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers 5x points on all airfare purchases made directly with the airline or with Amex travel, worth 10 cents per dollar spent, according to TPG’s latest valuations. That card also offers the International Airfare Program, giving cardholders discounts for premium class tickets on select carriers. Finally, if you have select Visa Infinite cards (like the now-discontinued Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card), you can get $100 off round-trip domestic economy flights for 2-5 passengers.

For more information, read my post on The Best Credit Cards for Airfare Purchases.

8. Check First Class

In certain cases, paying for first class may not be that much more expensive than buying a coach ticket. (Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)

It doesn’t make any sense, but there are times that a first class ticket can be very close to the price of one in economy class — or possibly even less. Some possible explanations are that people forget to check the price of first class, and that many companies don’t allow their employees to book first class, even when it’s less expensive.  Also, discounted first class fares might exist when only full-fare economy class tickets are for sale. Either way, always check the price of a first class ticket before paying for an above-average economy class fare. When you factor in the additional miles you will receive as well as the free baggage allowance, it may justify a modest premium in fare.

9. Look for Coupons and Other Offers

Like any business, airlines occasionally offer coupons and other discounts. For example, your Amex offers could feature airlines, like this one last year that gave customers $60 back after they spent $300 with Delta. Another example is a standing offer for discounts on British Airways flights for being an AARP member and/or using a Chase Visa card. You should also follow TPG on Twitter so you can be notified whenever a new deal alert comes up.

10. Buy Miles

The final strategy technically doesn’t apply to purchasing airfare; instead, it focuses on buying miles to then book an award ticket. When faced with an expensive fare and a shortage of miles, consider buying the miles you need for an award ticket, especially when they are on sale. It rarely makes sense to purchase miles without a bonus and without a specific award in mind, but when you can save money by purchasing miles and immediately redeeming them for an award flight, it can be a great idea. You can read about the latest buy miles promotion at this page.

Honorable Mention: Look at vacation packages

Most airlines offer vacation packages, and occasionally the price including hotel (and/or car rentals) is less than the price of the flight alone. Even when a package costs slightly more than the flight, it could be a good deal to grab all of your travel-related expenses for a trip in one fell swoop.

Bottom Line

Purchasing airfare can be a complicated endeavor, with so many carriers competing for customers and adjusting prices frequently. Thankfully, there are several simple strategies you can use to minimize your out-of-pocket expense for booking flights. Even if you just pick two or three of these as a starting point, you’ll be well on your way to finding inexpensive flights for your next trip.

What are your favorite ways to find cheap airfare?

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/TPG

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