Before You Book
Decide Where. You pick or go for flight deals.
Obviously you need to figure out where you want to go. Either have a place in mind or look for flight deals. The latter will often guarantee the best rate, but the deals are usually off season which can be good or bad depending on where you’re going. I generally have a place or places in mind that I want to visit versus just going for whatever deal is out there. But that’s just me. Flight deals never seem to be a time when and where I want to visit.
Decide When. Consider shoulder or low season.
After I decide where I want to go, I look up the best times to visit, factoring in weather, tourists, etc. I prefer shoulder seasons (usually spring and fall) which is when prices are cheaper and there are less people. In Europe or the U.S., for example, I’ve found the best times are May/June or Sept/Oct. Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day are good because kids are in school which obviously means less kids running around, but also less parents with them, and generally less people traveling. Most people, especially families and average tourists travel over summer vacation.
Decide How Long. Longer can result in cheaper flights.
Once you figure out what month, then decide how long you want to stay and if you have multiple destinations. If you can stretch it out, this has two advantages. First, prices are often cheaper than just a quick weekend flight. Second, if you spend longer and possibly go to more places, you can fly locally/regionally, which will almost always be cheaper around where you’re visiting than where you’re visiting from. Unless of course you’re lucky enough to live in Europe where this point is moot. For example, flying from the U.S. to Europe vs. Germany to Poland.
Pick Dates. Set or flexible.
Have a rough idea of which days you want to travel. When you start searching for flights (keep reading), this will be your baseline. If you’re flexible +-3 days, you will be able to find the cheapest overall airfare.
When To Fly. Best days in terms of cost and crowds are typically Tu, We, Th, Sa.
Business travelers typically fly Mo and Fr, so airlines up their prices around those business commuting days, which then sucks for the average leisure traveler. Also, Su is when most people want to return home from a weekend trip, or really any trip so they can get ready for work on Mo. However, if you fly mid-week or Sa, when most people don’t or can’t fly, you can save big. Possibly even hundreds of dollars depending on where you’re going.
When To Book. Best days to book are typically Mo, Tu, We, Th more than 3 months or around 2 weeks before your trip.
The farther in advance you book, the cheaper it will be. The 3 month mark seems to be around when prices start to change. Then around 2 weeks before seems to result in price drops, but then shoot up about a week before. This isn’t foolproof, but it’s a frequent pattern I’ve noticed. Sometimes if you book last minute (day of or day before) you can get amazing deals, but there’s very little certainty and reliability with this approach. I’m not sure of the exact science, but my guess is that people are thinking about vacation on the weekends, plus have the time to research and/or book, so airlines increase the prices on days people are more likely to actually book their flights.
How To Book. Credit card portal, airline official site, Kayak, Vayama, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz.
If you have a credit card that accumulates points redeemable for travel, this is the best option. Usually it will be through their website/portal. You will possibly get discounts, pay a fraction of the price, or possibly even fly for free. Check out Chase Sapphire Preferred or Bank of America Travel Rewards. For in depth reviews, check out these articles on Credit Loan for Chase and Bank of America rewards cards. Next option is direct with the airline if I don’t go through my credit credit, usually due to booking on a local airline not available through my credit card’s portal. I’ll use a third party search aggregator (see below) to find flights and then go to the airline with the best price. Alternatively, you can book through reliable third party sites who sometimes get equivalent or better deals. Usually a limited number, sometimes with restrictions. Read the fine print. The above list are sites I’ve personally booked with and have always had a pleasant experience.
You actually have 24-hours to modify or cancel your booking, at least in the U.S. Although I think this is pretty standard among most major airlines. This means that if you think you are getting a deal, book it. You can always cancel or change the dates within 24 hours. Also, if you create a price alert or search again, you can see if the price changed and re-book to get the cheaper price.
Apps & Websites
There are numerous sites and apps out there to help people find cheap deals on flights. I’ve used a bunch, but I eventually settled on the following that work for me. It’s best to use 2 or 3 for comparison, plus there are different benefits.
- Skyscanner. Best overall. Includes most number of airlines and ticketing agencies. Calendar view allows you to see what days are cheapest. Does more to find cheaper routes and airline combinations.
- Kayak. Best for viewing price trends. Can set up price alerts to be notified when prices increase, decrease, and/or reach a certain threshold (i.e. your budget).
- Google Flights. Best overall picture. Recently overhauled. Best if you don’t know when you want to fly, you’re flexible on dates, and also if you want to play around with pricing different destinations/airports if your route is flexible too.
- Hopper. iOS and Android. Good for price alerts and trends. I’ve used this, but always verify with Skyscanner or Kayak because I usually find cheaper on those sites.
**Notes on Ticketing Agencies. If you use Skyscanner in particular, there are all kinds of third parties that offer cheap tickets. Some are shadier than others, so I would suggest doing a quick Google search on the ticketing agency (e.g. “eDreams reviews”) to ensure customer satisfaction. Sometimes those deals may be too good to be true.