TRAVEL PLANS CAN quickly become expensive, making budget vacations extremely desirable. But such trips aren’t possible if you pay too much for airfare. And unless you know where to look, finding cheap flights can be a huge hassle. “For the airlines, it’s about getting you to pay the most you’re willing to pay, which is the opposite of what the consumer wants,” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel website JoeSentMe.com. On a single flight, he adds, there can be more than a dozen pricing categories. “On a 150-seat plane, there could be 50 different prices,” he says.
Plus, Brancatelli adds, each of those passengers may be paying for a different array of a la carte add-ons such as priority boarding or baggage fees. “The key thing to know about airline prices,” he says, “is that the fare is where you start, not where you finish.”
With summer right around the corner, U.S. News spoke to Brancatelli and other travel industry experts about the best ways to stretch your travel budget. Here are seven insider secrets to booking cheap flights:
- Book the flight seven weeks in advance.
- Buy at the best time: Tuesdays at 3 p.m. EST.
- Fly on the cheapest days, which are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.
- Fly out early.
- Check low-cost airline prices individually.
- Sign up for free price alerts.
- Build a relationship with the airline.
Read on for more information on each flight-booking strategy.
Book Seven Weeks in Advance
Passengers pay the lowest price – nearly 10 percent below the average fare – if they buy 50 days before their flight, according to data from the Airlines Reporting Corporation. The data were compiled by examining 2017 ticket sales from online and corporate travel agencies in the U.S. for the top 500 origin-and-destination markets. But the seven-week rule isn’t a surefire strategy for snagging the cheapest fare. “This is just a trend,” explains Chuck Thackston, ARC’s managing director of data science and research. “Airlines will make valuable deals available all the time. But, on average, we see this [50-day] approach works.”
Best Time to Book Flights: Tuesdays at 3 p.m. EST
If you don’t find the discounts you’re looking for in the early morning, a study by FareCompare.com says the best time to buy airline tickets and shop for travel (domestically) is on Tuesday at 3 p.m. EST. However, George Hobica, travel expert and journalist, argues that the best deals vary frequently, so there’s not one specific day or time of the week to buy.
Cheapest Days for Flights: Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday
According to a FareCompare.com study, the cheapest days to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday for domestic travel. “Flying on these days of the week is almost always the cheapest option in the U.S.,” according to the website. For international travel, weekdays are usually cheaper than weekends, FareCompare says. Friday and Sunday are the most expensive days for domestic travel.
Fly Out Early
The cheapest flight is typically the first flight of the morning. “Yes, that means you have to get up at 4 a.m.,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. The next-cheapest flight times are during or after lunch or at the dinner hour. “There’s a general rule of thumb, which is ‘fly hungry,'” Seaney says. That’s because flyers tend to not want to travel at inconvenient or uncomfortable times, he says.
Check Low-Cost Airlines Individually
Comparison sites like Kayak don’t necessarily do all the work for you. Some low-cost airlines, like Southwest, don’t allow their tickets to be quoted on popular comparison websites, Seaney says. So be sure to check them separately. And do your homework to understand what extra charges, such as carry-on or checked baggage fees, might increase the cost of your ticket.
Sign Up for Free Alerts
Almost every major online booking site offers airfare alerts that ping you when fare prices fall. Popular digital resources such as Hitlist, The Flight Deal and Secret Flying offer quick alerts on good deals, Hobica says. If you sign up for fare alerts from Kayak or Google Flights, you can specify certain routes and travel dates, Hobica says. He adds that travelers shouldn’t overlook online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline. “They sometimes buy seats from the airlines in bulk and sell them for whatever the market will bear,” he says. That can result in savings if they’ve overpurchased a particular route.
Build a Relationship
“The question isn’t how much is it to fly from here to there, the question is, ‘Who’s asking?'” Brancatelli says. If you carry the airline’s credit card, you automatically have a leg up on other travelers. Credit cards tied to airlines now offer perks that were once standard, such as free checked bags, priority boarding and seat selection, so they may be worth signing up for if you fly frequently on one airline.