Flight Hacker’s Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Know When to Book for the Best Deals
Knowing the best time to book a flight can save you hundreds of dollars on airfare. While there is no one-size-fits-all rule, understanding airline pricing strategies and booking patterns can help you score the lowest fares.
Airlines use complex algorithms to set fares based on forecasted demand. Prices fluctuate frequently, sometimes several times per day. Fares are typically highest when a flight first opens for booking, up to 11 months in advance. Prices remain high until about two to three months pre-departure. This is when the airline has collected sufficient booking data to accurately predict demand.
Fares then begin to incrementally decrease as departure approaches. The airline wants to fill all seats, so drops prices to stimulate bookings. The exception is during peak travel periods like Christmas, when demand is high regardless of price. In general, domestic U.S. flights will bottom out around four to six weeks before departure. International flights may reach their lowest point two to three months out.
I always start checking fares for my trip about four months in advance. Monitoring prices gives me a sense of trends and helps pinpoint the ideal booking window. Setting fare alerts is also useful so I'm notified if prices drop. I never book more than three months out unless it's a peak travel period. Being patient nearly always results in cheaper fares.
Booking too early carries risk. Life circumstances or work schedules can change. If you need to alter your trip, airlines gouge you with enormous change and cancellation fees. Waiting prevents a lapse in plans from becoming a financial hit. Also, new flight deals occasionally pop up within a few months of departure. Booking at the last minute lets you capitalize on those savings.
Of course, last minute deals are not guaranteed. There is some risk fares spike as unsold seats decline. Occasionally, procrastinating results in paying more than if you had booked earlier. My strategy is booking no later than four to six weeks out. Airfares are often near their lowest point, while also allowing time to adjust plans. I avoid the stress of last minute shopping without overpaying by booking too early.
What else is in this post?
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Know When to Book for the Best Deals
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Be Flexible with Departure Airports
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Try Alternative Airlines and Airports
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Use Flight Search Engines Wisely
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Leverage Airline Sales and Promotions
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Consider Open Jaw and Multi City Itineraries
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Fly Budget Airlines When Possible
- Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Use Miles and Points for Free Flights
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Be Flexible with Departure Airports
Expanding your airport options can unlock huge savings on airfare. While searching flights from your home airport is convenient, prices are often substantially cheaper from nearby hubs. With most major cities served by multiple airports, looking at alternatives provides opportunity to score deals.
I regularly save hundreds of dollars by traveling 60-90 minutes to alternate airports in my region. The time and mileage is trivial compared to the money saved. Even after accounting for parking, transportation, or overnight hotel costs near the alternate airport, the overall savings are massive.
For example, I live between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Flights from Washington Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore (BWI) are far cheaper than neighboring Reagan National (DCA). I once paid $350 roundtrip to Miami from BWI compared to $700 from DCA on the same American Airlines’ flight. With BWI just 45 minutes away, the extra drive was well worth it.
Focus on major hub airports. Large carriers operate high volumes of flights from their hubs, creating economies of scale that enable lower fares. Delta's hub in Atlanta (ATL) or American's hub in Dallas (DFW) are go-to alternate airports in those regions.
Use Google Flights' "explore nearby airports" feature. It's a quick way to find options within a 50, 100 or 200 mile radius. The map view visually displays distance and drive times to weigh feasibility.
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Try Alternative Airlines and Airports
Beyond expanding your airport options, looking at alternative airlines can unlock substantial savings. While major carriers like Delta, American and United have huge route networks, lower cost and ultra-low cost airlines compete aggressively on price. Taking a few extra stops or flying budget carriers is an easy way to keep hundreds of dollars in your wallet.
I always check Southwest, JetBlue and the ultra-low cost airlines like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant when shopping flights. While I may have airline or hotel brand loyalty status with the majors, I have no problem mixing in budget airlines to save. Even in premium cabins, the price differential can be staggering. Why pay $1,200 for a Delta One business class ticket when I can fly American for $350 in domestic first class?
The savings from alternative airlines is not just limited to economy fares. On a recent trip to Hawaii, I saved nearly $1,000 per ticket flying American versus Delta. Delta wanted $3,200 roundtrip from Washington D.C. to Honolulu in first class. American had wide open award availability on the same route for just 80,000 miles plus $11 in taxes per person. While Delta would have earned me more miles with my status, American’s value proposition was far superior.
The network airlines count on customer inertia. Most travelers default to Delta, American or United out of habit, not realizing lower cost options exist. Always check Southwest, which publishes its fares openly unlike the legacy carriers. Sign up for Mighty Travels PREMIUM email alerts, which frequently highlight deals on alternative airlines. And don’t forget about the ULCCs, which offer bare bones service but crazy cheap base fares. I’ll gladly pack my own sandwich to save $150.
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Use Flight Search Engines Wisely
Flight search engines like Google Flights, Kayak and Skyscanner are invaluable tools for finding cheap airfare. But blindly plugging in your dates and hitting search can cause you to miss out on savings. These engines have nuances in how they display and price flights. Understanding limitations and using advanced features will help unlock the lowest fares.
Google Flights excels at displaying a wide range of connection options. It’s calendar view neatly shows cheapest dates to fly. But Google Flights lacks some low-cost carriers like Allegiant and Southwest. Always check airline sites directly if not seeing your preferred option.
Kayak has a solid all-around search with flexible date grids and fare alerts. Its unique algorithm processes and displays airline pricing data differently than competitors. I often find lower fares on Kayak compared to other engines when booking last minute.
Skyscanner is best for exploring budget airline options across multiple days or months. Its “whole month” search shows cheapest days to travel at a quick glance. The graph view clearly depicts pricing trends to pinpoint savings. But Skyscanner’s actual booking links can be confusing with multiple redirects. Verify details on airline sites.
To maximize savings, use flight search engines for inspiration but book directly on airline websites. Third-party booking sites add fees and may display inaccuracies. If finding a great deal on Expedia, replicate the search on the airline site. No use overpaying for the same itinerary.
Leverage advanced features like multi-city and open jaw searches. Most engines only show round-trips by default, limiting options. Add a layover city or return from a different location to uncover hidden savings.
Be flexible and patient. Prices fluctuate often. If fares look high, try searching a few days later. Use fare alerts to get notified when prices drop. Consider nearby airports and less desirable flight times. Sacrificing convenience opens cheaper possibilities.
Track prices with Google Flights’ price tracking graphs. Visually see when fares are peaking or dipping over months. This helps pinpoint ideal booking windows. Sign-up for Mighty Travels PREMIUM email alerts on mistake fares. Act fast, as error fares disappear quickly when discovered.
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Leverage Airline Sales and Promotions
Airlines constantly run sales and promotions to boost bookings during slow periods. Savvy travelers can leverage these deals to save big on airfare compared to normal prices. Knowing where to find current promotions and understanding how to maximize them will put cheap flights within reach.
The major U.S. airlines like Delta, American and United run weekly sales focused on different destinations or travel periods. For example, Delta frequently discounts routes from its hubs in Atlanta, Detroit or Minneapolis to compete with low-cost carriers. American often deeply discounts flights to long-haul international destinations to maintain load factors. Signing up on each airline's deals email list ensures you never miss out.
Keep an eye out for mistaken fares published by airlines. Earlier this year, Delta accidentally priced Hawaii flights from the West Coast at just $85 round-trip. Thousands of travelers capitalized before Delta realized the error. While truly mistaken fares are rare, airlines frequently honor them as a goodwill gesture. Jumping on pricing glitches can lead to once-in-a-lifetime deals.
Airlines also discount airfares for specific groups or occasions. For example, students and educators often receive generous flight discounts by providing credentials. Most airlines offer military, veterans and senior citizen fares. Shop around for the best promotional pricing through organizations you may be affiliated with.
Consider signing up for airline branded credit cards when running promotions. This year Citi offered 75,000 American Airlines miles as a sign-up bonus for their AAdvantage card, worth over $1,000 in airfare. Chase ran a promotion giving 80,000 bonus miles to new United cardholders. A single bonus can score you a free international flight. Just be sure to set calendar reminders to cancel cards before annual fees hit.
Look for discounts on airline social media channels. Many carriers now offer limited-time flash sales exclusively announced on Twitter or Facebook. This allows airlines to target deals at their most engaged followers. United recently offered 50% off select routes for the first 500 takers. Setting up alerts delivers these deals right to your phone.
Booking at the right time is also key to sales leverage. Airlines offer weekly fare sales almost like clockwork each Tuesday afternoon. Knowing this schedule helps jump on discounts as soon as they are announced. Signing up for weekend getaways sales on Monday nights ensures you’re at the front of the line before cheap fares sell out fast. Subscribing to email alerts creates a competitive edge.
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Consider Open Jaw and Multi City Itineraries
Open jaw and multi-city itineraries open up savings opportunities hidden from traditional round-trips. By mixing up your departure and arrival cities, or adding stopovers along the way, you gain pricing flexibility that unlocks lower fares. It requires more research, but the hundreds saved are well worth the effort.
I always check open jaw and multi-city options before booking flights. Traditional round-trips paint an incomplete picture, focused solely on pricing between point A and B. By breaking out of this mindset, you think creatively about stringing together discount one-way fares on diverse routes.
For example, I recently booked travel from Washington D.C. to Bangkok with a return from Phuket. This “open jaw” allowed me to visit multiple destinations in Thailand for barely more than a round-trip ticket to Bangkok. The open jaw essentially gave me a free flight within Thailand packaged into my outbound routing.
Multi-city ticketing offers similar flexibility. Suppose Los Angeles to Sydney airfares are prohibitively expensive. Try pricing Los Angeles - Fiji - Sydney instead. Adding the connection through Fiji opens up discounted partner award options compared to the nonstop. The savings from the extra hop far outweigh the inconvenience.
Focus on major airline hubs when considering open jaw or multi-city itineraries. Carriers compete aggressively on fares in and out of their fortress hubs. Funneling your itinerary through airline mega hubs like Atlanta, Dallas or Chicago opens up discounted fare classes.
Don’t forget to check budget airlines as well when pricing out multi-city options. Ultra-low cost carriers like Allegiant, Spirit or Frontier may offer rock bottom fares for certain legs of your journey. The lack of frills is worth the trade-off for massive savings.
Savvy frequent flyers also use open jaws and multi-city ticketing to maximize miles. Crafting itineraries with additional segments allows you to earn more miles at a lower redemption cost. Essentially you lower the mile cost per segment by adding extra legs embedded into a single award.
Consider signing up for airline co-branded credit cards when ticketing open jaw or multi-city itineraries. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Amex Platinum provide enough signup bonus miles for a free trip with this increased flexibility. Cards also protect you if a segment gets disrupted by allowing points redeposits without cash fees.
Keep in mind open jaw and multi-city fares have tighter change and cancellation policies. Airlines break these into individual flight segments, each with its own set of rules. This limits your flexibility if plans shift. Consider travel insurance for complex itineraries in case you need to adjust on the fly.
If juggling multiple flight segments across airlines seems stressful, use online travel agencies like Expedia or Priceline for booking. OTAs will automatically display open jaw and multi-city options across diverse airlines in a single search. And customer service through the OTA acts as a helpful intermediary if changes arise.
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Fly Budget Airlines When Possible
Flying budget airlines can be a game changer for savvy travelers who don’t mind sacrificing some comforts. While the legacy carriers pamper you in premium seats and airport lounges, the barebones budget experience strips away everything but the core service - transporting you safely between two points. Yet the rock bottom base fares budget airlines offer make the tradeoffs worthwhile for huge savings.
I always check Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant when searching flights, even in premium cabins. The price difference versus American or Delta is staggering - we’re talking hundreds less for the same route. A first class ticket that costs $800 on Delta may go for $250 on Spirit. That type of discount outweighs the loss of free drinks or recliner seats. You can buy a lot of cocktails and neck pillows with the $550 savings!
Budget airlines expand your destination possibilities by making far flung locations suddenly affordable. Places like Hawaii, Europe, or South America can be price-prohibitive on American, Delta, or United. But budget carriers have collapsed the pricing gap between domestic and international flights. Allegiant flies from small towns across America to vacation hot spots like Orlando or Vegas for less than $100 round-trip. Norwegian offers long-haul budget service from the U.S. East Coast to Europe with base fares under $200 one-way. Taking a barebones 11-hour flight over the Atlantic is worth every cramped minute to save hundreds over legacy fares.
While budget airlines have traditionally focused on economy travelers, many now offer surprisingly nice premium cabins at remarkable value. Spirit Airlines has “Big Front Seats” with expanded legroom and advance boarding from just $65 each way. JetBlue Mint offers lie-flat business class suites that rival international service for a fraction of the price. No need to pay outrageous business class prices on major airlines - budget carriers have quietly revolutionized premium air travel value.
Saving money does come at a cost, however - you must diligently read the fine print to avoid surprise fees that gnaw away at your discount ticket. Budget airlines have turned fees into an art form, charging for everything from seat assignments, to overhead bin usage, to printing a boarding pass at the airport. But being an informed flyer prevents these fees from sneaking up on you. Do your homework on the airline website during booking so you know exactly what is included and what will cost extra.
Flight Hacker's Delight: The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Cheapest Routes - Use Miles and Points for Free Flights
Savvy flyers know airline miles and credit card points can be powerful currency. With a sound strategy, you can book lavish business class vacations for pennies on the dollar through redemptions. Learning loyalty programs’ sweet spots squeezes insane value from every mile earned.
Focus on transferable points earned through credit cards over airline-specific miles. Flexible programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards allow transfers into multiple airline partners. This increases options to book those once-in-a-lifetime awards the airlines tightly restrict using their own miles.
For example, British Airways notoriously blocks partner business class awards, yet I’ve booked several on British Airways metal through Amex Membership Rewards transfers. Transferrable points widen your redemption possibilities. Apply for premium cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum that rack up flexible rewards rapidly from bonuses and spending.
Study award charts to understand the highest redemption values. Programs assign different costs in miles to various regions and cabin classes. Sometimes a deal pops out. One of my favorites is flying to northern South America in business class for only 50,000 American AAdvantage miles each way. Keep an eye out for discounted lap child and companion awards to stretch your miles further.
Use miles to gain access to opaque inventory blocked from cash bookings. Airlines tightly restrict business class award space, but partner programs open access. Singapore Airlines doesn’t show its premium cabins to other programs, yet I’ve flown Suites to Tokyo using United MileagePlus miles.
Consider redeeming miles for budget airlines when they beat the legacy carriers on convenience or price. For example, Southwest Airlines offers fixed award pricing based on distance that can undercut traditional programs. Families should capitalize on Southwest’s unlimited companion pass perk.
Miles provide flexibility if cash fares spike post-booking. Paying cash locks in the rate, while miles may be redeposited or rebooked without fees. This peace of mind is invaluable during disruption, as we’ve seen with COVID-19’s impact on travel.
Obsessively track your points balances and airline mileage expiration dates. Set calendar reminders for when miles will vanish. Proactively call to retain soon-to-expire miles from inactivity. Never let hard-earned rewards disappear due to neglect.