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Just about every traveler out there deals with airline flight prices in some way. Virtually no one has enough points and miles to book every trip as an award ticket, and frequent travelers are regularly asked to help family and friends find cheap airfare. Many credit card programs allow you to use your rewards to pay for airfare directly based on the cost of a ticket — in these cases, finding a cheap flight is just as important as it is when paying cash.
The bottom line is simple: All of us are at the mercy of pricing models that can vary significantly from day to day, route to route or carrier to carrier. Airlines are in business to make money, so naturally they want to maximize the revenue they can squeeze out of each passenger (be it through airfare or other fees, the latter of which are most closely tied to profitability).
So how do you go about minimizing the costs of your flights? You could wait until hear about a Deal Alert here at TPG, but nobody knows when the next one will happen (and there’s no way to know if the timing and destination will be right for you). Fortunately, there are some simple tools and websites that can help you find cheap airfare, and today we’ll cover the best of the bunch.
If looking for more general tips for snagging inexpensive flights, be sure to check out my Top 10 Strategies to Find Cheap Airfare.
1. Google Flights
This may the most powerful and intuitive tool for finding the lowest airfare. There are so many features and functionalities that you can utilize to zero in on your ideally-priced flight. When you’re exploring this tool, be sure to examine the map search feature, which can show you the least expensive fares to a variety of destinations, which can be a great source of inspiration. You can also add date ranges to your search, allowing you to see round-trip prices for trips of specific lengths across months at a time.
However, one of the best features is the embedded price tracker. This appears both on the search results page (allowing you to track overall prices on the route you’re searching) …
… as well as on an individual flight (allowing you to track a specific itinerary’s price).
You’ll then receive notifications of price changes sent directly to your Inbox, preventing the need to manually search multiple times a day in the hopes of a price drop.
Just note that while this tool will include all airlines, it won’t show ticket prices on some carriers, like Southwest.
For additional suggestions on using this site, check out the following guides:
- How to Use Google Flights to Plan Your Next Award Trip
- How to Become an Advanced User of Google Flights
2. ITA Matrix
Google Flights is based on data from ITA Matrix, which Google acquired back in 2011. What ITA lacks in its interface (compared to Google Flights, at least) it more than makes up for with its power. Once you learn how to use some of the advanced features of this tool, it will change the way you search for airfare. For example, ITA can allow you to search for split fares, when you can book a limited number of seats at a lower price point and the remainder at a higher price point. Since airline websites always default to selling a group of tickets at the higher price, this feature can save you some serious cash.
ITA Matrix is also great for searching flights to regions rather than just a single airport. It also offers you a detailed breakdown of all of the taxes and fees imposed, which can be a useful way to estimate your cash charges when booking award tickets. The only downside of this tool is that it takes some time to learn how to access its advanced features, but once you do, you’ll be in a great position to find cheap airfare.
3. Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center
The only thing better than a cheap flight is a free one, and that can be a possibility when you look for airfare at the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center. Here, you’ll have the choice of paying for your flights with your credit card, your Ultimate Rewards points or any combination of the two. Using your points is especially advantageous when you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which lets you redeem points for 1.5 cents each toward any purchase made through the Ultimate Rewards travel center.
These days, the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center is powered by Expedia, which has some advantages and drawbacks. The biggest issue is that you can’t book flights on discount carriers like Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant and even Southwest. However, it has recently expanded to include activities and even airport transfers, so you have a lot of options for using your points beyond airfare.
It might seem strange to include a specific airline’s website in this list, but hear me out. Yes, you’ll only find flights on Southwest here, but bear in mind that you’ll rarely (if ever) be able to purchase Southwest flights anywhere else. Southwest carries more domestic passengers than any other airline, and it has dozens of nonstop routes that no other airline offers. As a result, it’s critical to include Southwest in your repertoire of tools for finding cheap airfare; if you want to be sure that you’re getting the lowest possible airfare, and possibly a nonstop flight, you simply have to visit Southwest.com before you complete your search for cheap airfare.
Note that Southwest has one other major benefit when it comes to inexpensive airfare: no change fees. Even after you book, I’d recommend periodically coming back to check on your existing flights to see if the prices have dropped. When they do, you can rebook at the lower price and get a “refund” for the difference (in the form of a Southwest credit towards a future flight). This same process works for award flights, but with paid flights, it’s a nice way to snag a little voucher to help defray the cost of your next Southwest trip.
It comes as a surprise to most people when they hear that Wikipedia can be an invaluable tool for finding flights. When I’m planning a trip, I first go to the Wikipedia pages for my preferred departure and destination airports (along with any nearby alternatives). I then scroll down to the section titled “Airlines and destinations,” which is a table of every airline that serves the airport and a list of every one of its nonstop destinations. The further you get from home, the more likely you are to discover an unexpected carrier that’s serving a route, especially overseas. Armed with that knowledge, you can search for discount flights on the carrier’s website that may not always appear on third-party booking sites.
The last tool leverages the power of social media to learn about deals as soon as they are discovered. This likely won’t help if you have to book a specific trip on inflexible dates, but it can be a great way to snag cheap flights and take an impromptu vacation. Some of the best airfare deals are first broadcast on Twitter, so it’s become an essential tool for finding cheap flights for many travelers. Handles to follow include @TPG_Alerts, @TheFlightDeal, @secretflying, @airfarewatchdog and @farecompare.
Use the Right Credit Card
These six tools can help ensure that you’re finding the most economical flight option for your next trip, but it’s also important to swipe the right credit card to book them. There are a variety of top travel rewards cards that could fit this bill, but a few stand out:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: This card offers 5x points on flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex travel, a terrific return of 10% based on TPG’s most recent valuations. Just bear in mind that this card does not provide trip delay protection, nor does it include trip cancellation/interruption coverage if you need to change your plans.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: This card offers 3x points on all travel purchases, and while the resulting return (6%) is slightly lower than the Amex Platinum, it does provide some of the most comprehensive travel coverage out there.
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: This card is one of the simplest out there, offering 2 miles for every dollar you spend on all purchases. This isn’t spectacular, but it can still be a great option for buying airfare thanks to the way it allows you to redeem miles at a fixed value. Called the Purchase Eraser, it allows you to use miles to cover the cost of any travel purchase, though you also now have the option to transfer your Capital One miles to over a dozen airline partners.
For additional suggestions, check out my guide on The Best Credit Cards for Airfare Purchases.
Finding the lowest airfare is more of an art than a science, but thankfully there are a number of strategies as well as tools to help in this search. The above list represents just a small sample of the myriad of websites and resources specifically designed to get you the lowest price for your next trip. However, we’d love to hear your favorite tools as well, so please feel free to share in the comments below.
Featured photo by Westend61 / Getty Images
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