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Here's what you need to know to lock in airfare, and then keep shopping for a better price

Aug. 28, 2022
10 min read
practical pointers
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There’s no safe, tried-and-true method for knowing when airfares will go up or down. It’s not like there’s a particular day of the week or time of day when you can log on and expect to find a cheaper fare (as I found out earlier this year when I spoke to a top aviation analyst about the best times to purchase flights).

Ultimately, it’s a combination of complex algorithms and human analysts at airlines that determines what happens with airfares.

For that reason — particularly in a year like 2022 when prices have been quite high — it’s generally a good idea to lock in a good price when you see it.

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However, it can be a terrible experience to purchase flights and then see the price drop significantly a day or two later.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has regulations that give passengers some protection when it comes to refunds and prices, within a window, at least. Namely, when it comes to flights booked at least seven days in advance, The rules require airlines to give passengers 24 hours to cancel, or the ability to put a fare on hold for 24 hours while deciding to book.

Depending on the airline, you may find you have one or, in some cases, both of those options available.

For that reason, when I book flights — whether with cash or with miles — I lean heavily on the policies at certain airlines that allow you to hold tickets for a period of one day or more. I’ve saved a good bit of money and miles doing this over the years.

In fact, if the airline allows you to hold the fare for 24 hours or more at no cost, I’ll usually make use of this option. If the price goes down in the ensuing 24 hours, I can rebook at a lower cost. If it goes up, I can book at the original cost. Sometimes I’ll even repeat the process if the ticket price is stagnant.

Airline policies differ greatly, depending on the airline and whether you’re booking a cash ticket or an award ticket. However, it can be a way to try to find yourself a better deal on flights.

Here are a few suggestions.

An American Airlines plane sits at the gate at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) in North Carolina. SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Use fare locks or holds when booking flights

Again, the extent to which you’ll be able to use fare holds to your advantage — and whether you’re able to do so at no cost — really depends on which airline you’re using.

American Airlines

American Airlines has probably the best hold option among the three largest U.S. airlines, and I’ve made extensive use of this option.

Generally, if the trip is a day or more away, you can put a 24-hour hold on the cash fare at no cost. Actually, it’s not necessarily 24 hours. I’ve found that American generally gives you a free hold until the end of the next day. So, if I put a hold on a ticket at 10 a.m. on a Monday, I’ll generally have until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday before the hold expires.

AA.COM

With American, the trip will automatically be canceled if you do nothing, so you’ll want to set that reminder on your phone if you think you’re going to want to book the trip at the end of that period.

American typically gives you a longer time period to hold award tickets — often five days. However, that can shrink as the trip gets much closer.

AA.COM

On Aug. 19, I searched award flights for September, and American offered to hold the mileage fare at no cost until Aug. 24 — five days in the future.

United Airlines

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Among the three legacy U.S. carriers, we’ll put United Airlines in the middle. In addition to allowing you to cancel a flight at no cost within 24 hours of booking, United also has a FareLock option for certain flights, but it will cost you. Depending on the itinerary and how long you want to hold the fare, it can be a fairly negligible cost.

UNITED.COM

Let’s say I’m looking at flights between the New York area and Los Angeles for September. For $426 round trip, United offers me a three-day hold for $5.99 per traveler. The price goes up from there if I want to hold the ticket for longer.

UNITED.COM

United offered me more expensive pricing options for a FareLock on award tickets for that same itinerary, which started at 41,300 miles round trip. The three-day hold was $9.99.

UNITED.COM

It’s not ideal to pay for a fare hold, but it could come in handy in some situations. For instance, say you have an important trip that’s only a couple of weeks away so there's a risk of the price increasing dramatically. If you’re not 100% ready to commit to purchasing the flight, this could be a good option to consider.

United also gives you an option for what happens at the end of the FareLock period: Let the ticket expire, or let the airline ticket you.

UNITED.COM)

Delta Air Lines

A Delta Air Lines aircraft taxis at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

For Delta Air Lines customers, the most straightforward option is likely going to be the refund avenue. Even when you book a ticket that is technically nonrefundable, there's a logo on the booking page for Delta's 24-hour risk-free guarantee, which allows you to get a refund if you decide to cancel for any reason within 24 hours.

DELTA.COM

You'll see that same logo pop up when you go to book an award ticket with Delta SkyMiles. If you click on that logo, it takes you to a page that has step-by-step instructions on how to go about canceling your ticket.

DELTA.COM

Once you do this, you could certainly go back in and re-book a new trip if you were to see the price drop.

There is also a way you can effectively hold a ticket with Delta without putting down any credit card, but it's a more complicated process. You can reserve a ticket by phone, and ask to pay in cash. You'll then have until midnight the following day to pay at a Delta ticketing counter. So if you truly do not want your credit card charged during a 24-hour waiting period, this could be an option, but it will ultimately involve a trip to your nearest airport to pay.

Holding tickets multiple times

While it requires some extra diligence and time spent on your airline’s booking site, I’ve been known to place holds on itineraries multiple times over (at least when using airlines like American that offer complimentary fare locks).

While I was searching for award tickets for a trip to Turks and Caicos earlier this year, I went through the following sequence several times: Find an award ticket, put it on a five-day hold, at the end of five days see that the price hadn’t changed, cancel the ticket and then put a new five-day hold on it. Repeat.

AA.COM

Had I seen the mileage was set to go up at the end of five days, I would have purchased the flights. However, the price didn’t go up. By checking every day, I was ready on the one day the price decreased, and I was able to lock in an award ticket at a lower rate.

There are third-party sites that do fare locks, too. However, this often involves booking your trip through a third party, which can lead to complications with your loyalty benefits and changing tickets.

Some airlines also have much more flexible policies for canceling and reinstating miles on award tickets compared with cash fares. So, if you book a trip and then see a lower mileage option pop up days later, you may still be able to cancel, reinstate your miles and rebook.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that on Southwest Airlines, you pretty much always have the ability to rebook at a lower price because of the way Southwest's cancellation policy works.

The carrier’s Business Select and Anytime refundable fares allow you a full refund if you cancel at least 10 minutes prior to departure. You’ll get credits rather than cash back if you cancel a Wanna Get Away flight, but it’s still worth making that change because you can apply the credit to a future trip.

You technically could repeat the process of canceling a ticket within 24 hours on Delta or United at no cost using those airlines' 24-hour cancellation policies, though your credit card would get charged and refunded multiple times in the process.

SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Bottom line

Putting holds on fares can help you save money or miles. It allows you to lock in a price and then keep shopping around without fear of the price going up … at least for a bit.

Be sure to closely research what your individual airline’s policy is when it comes to these holds. Also, keep a keen eye on whether you can hold a ticket at all, how long you can hold it and at what cost. Also, check to find out what happens at the end of the hold period (is the ticket automatically purchased, or is it automatically canceled?).

Using this tactic requires some commitment to checking airline sites daily while planning a trip. However, it can often bring some good savings.

Featured image by (Photo by Kosamtu/Getty Images)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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