How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets, According to Travel Pros

Lyla

If last year was the year of travel contrasts—the highs of the end of COVID-era border closures combined with the lows of air travel chaos—this year could be seen as the year of the harsh travel reality check. As demand has come roaring back in the aftermath of the pandemic, airfares have skyrocketed, giving travelers extreme sticker shock.

The prices for flights to Europe and Asia this summer are higher than they have been in more than five years, travel booking site Hopper reports. Round-trip flights to Europe are averaging more that $1,100 per ticket and flights to Asia are more than $1,800 on average this summer, with both having increased more than $300 per ticket on average when compared to last summer.

Airfares have been climbing due to a perfect storm of strong demand, inflation, the high price of oil, and capacity shortfalls—and they don’t appear to be coming down anytime soon. For many travelers, the price of flights can influence not just their travel budget and trip calculus for any particular getaway, but ultimately how many trips they can take in a given year.

But what if there was a way to book smarter? Perhaps it’s time to think more strategically about how and when we book our flights. Gone are the days when we can blasé about securing flights. Last-minute deals? You can (mostly) forget about those. If you want to score a good deal, these expert tips and tricks are the path forward. It’s time to get creative, crafty—heck, maybe even a bit sneaky.

These days, “it can sometimes feel like finding good deals is akin to finding a four-leaf clover or spotting a shooting star,” says Katy Nastro, travel expert at flight deal tracking site Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights). But, Nastro adds, airfare deals are definitely still out there, it just “may take a bit more of a keen eye to find them.”

Here’s how you can still unearth more affordable airline tickets in a sea of sky-high airfares.

How to find cheap airline tickets

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: Despite all the amazing insider tips we’re about to bestow upon you, there are many reasons why you may still end up paying a higher airfare than you would have liked—especially if you need to travel during a very specific time frame (around school breaks, say, or for an event or cruise on specific dates).

But with some flexibility and cunning, you might still be able to outsmart the odds, no matter how much they may be stacked in favor of higher airfares. Here’s how.

Know when to book for the best flight price

One of the great agonies of booking air travel is knowing when to actually click that book button to ensure you’re getting the best possible airfare (is Tuesday still the best day of the week to book travel?). It’s such a dramatic moment, not least because of all the over-analyzing and budgeting acrobatics that go into it. If the airfare feels high, is it worth waiting a bit to see if it will still drop, or will it just get higher?

“Airfare is volatile and can change on a dime but tends to go in the upwards direction the closer you get to the date you are looking to fly,” says Nastro. “To give yourself the best odds at finding the best price for a flight, look within the Goldilocks window—the time period that’s not too early but not too late when the opportunity for a cheap flight to pop up is at its greatest.”

For domestic flights, book between 1 and 3 months before departure, or 3 to 7 months out for a peak summer travel season, advises Nastro. For international flights, book 2 to 8 months out for off-peak travel, and 4 to 10 months out for a peak season travel when heading abroad.

For U.S. domestic flights, “prices have usually been their lowest 21-60 days out, with average prices bottoming out 44 days before departure,” wrote James Byers, group product manager for Google Flights, in a recent blog post. The travel search behemoth notes that the best time to book a flight from the U.S. to Europe is 129 days before departure with prices tending to be lower anywhere between 50 and 179 days out. And the best time to book flights from the U.S. to Mexico or the Caribbean based is 59 days out, with airfares typically being lowest between 37 and 87 days before departure.

“But keep in mind that these patterns may not hold true for your specific route, so planning and booking early is usually a good idea,” writes Byers.

The cheapest days of the week to fly

Avoiding the weekends, and one or two days around them, can pretty consistently result in savings. Flight booking site Hopper estimates that travelers can save an average of 17 percent, or $56 per ticket on domestic airfare, by flying smack-dab in the middle of the week, on Tuesday or Wednesday. Flying on a Saturday can also lead to some potential savings since most travelers are keen to maximize their weekends.

Try a (new) low-cost carrier

Several low-cost carriers have launched, relaunched, or expanded service in recent months, offering some welcome relief to travelers experiencing sticker shock when booking domestic or international airfares. Not only do they offer low-cost flights, but they often have fare sales that bring the price down even further. Of course, you often get what you pay for, so you can expect more basic, no-frills service. But they can be worth trying out, and we’ve covered many of them recently:

  • Breeze Airways: The domestic low-cost startup from JetBlue founder David Neeleman, which offers one-way domestic fares as low as $39, has a three-tiered fare model: Nice (its no-frills class), Nicer (includes things like a free checked bag), and Nicest (the airline’s version of first class). Breeze Airways currently flies to 37 destinations throughout the U.S. We recently reviewed the experience.
  • Condor: German low-cost carrier Condor has been around for decades, but the airline just introduced new Airbus A330neo aircraft for its long-haul flights across the pond with beautiful new business, premium and economy seating—for less.
  • French Bee: The Paris-based low-cost carrier French Bee reintroduced transatlantic and transpacific service from the U.S. to Paris and Tahiti in 2021. This is our review of flying with French Bee.
  • JetBlue: U.S.-based JetBlue isn’t new, of course, but its expanding transatlantic service is. JetBlue now flies to London, Paris, and Amsterdam with fares as low as $479 roundtrip.
  • Norse Atlantic Airways: A reboot of former transatlantic low-cost carrier Norwegian Air, Norse Atlantic has been expanding its U.S. service. It now flies from New York’s JFK airport to Berlin, London, Paris, and Oslo; from Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale to London and Oslo; and from Boston, Orlando, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., to London. Flights from JFK to Rome kick off on June 30.
  • Play: Budget Icelandic airline Play offers one-way flights to Europe as low as $110. We tested Play out to see what flights that cheap actually feel like.
  • Zipair: This low-cost carrier from Japan Airlines (JAL Group) quietly launched in 2020 during the height of the pandemic and has recently been growing its international flight network as Japan’s borders opened back up. Zipair’s latest addition is a newly announced flight between San Francisco and Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, with one-way fares as low as $325. The San Francisco route joins Zipair’s existing flights from Los Angeles, San Jose (in Northern California), and Honolulu.
storefront in Tokyo with signs in Japanese and bikes parked out front

Excited about traveling to a recently reopened Japan? Try Zipair for more affordable flights to Tokyo.

Use a 24-hour price freeze

U.S. airlines are required by the Department of Transportation to fully refund your airfare if you cancel your flight within 24 hours of booking. While it’s not a ton of time, it does allow travelers to book and re-book a few different options safe in the knowledge that as long as the flight is canceled within 24 hours they will get their money back. This can be really handy during the research phase of making flight reservations and when trying to weigh a few different options such as whether to book a round-trip with a single airline versus two one-ways (see below), a nonstop versus a connecting flight, or even just playing around with different flight times and dates.

Compare with foreign carriers—and use regional airlines

While a lot of travelers stateside are accustomed to starting or ending their flight search with the major U.S. airlines, if you’re flying abroad, make sure to also search for flights on the sites of international airlines that serve the destination (TAP Air Portugal often has great prices for Europe flights, as does Turkish Airlines on numerous international routes).

Also consider that there are regional airlines (such as Ryanair, Wizz Air, and Norwegian in Europe) that can help make a connecting flight more affordable—just be sure to build in plenty of buffer if you booked a separate connecting flight because if you lose the connection due to an inadequate layover that you scheduled yourself, that’s completely on you. Also, if you are going to switch from a legacy carrier to a low-cost regional carrier, beware the baggage limitations. Most (if not all) low-cost carriers have much lower bag limits than their legacy counterparts and will often charge quite a hefty fee for overage (potentially nullifying any savings).

Look into two one-way flights (with different airlines) versus one round-trip

Nastro notes that one way to get creative with how to look for affordable airfares is to compare one-way flights with competing carriers. “Sometimes you can actually save by booking your trip separately on different airlines to find the cheapest overall price, because of our trusty friend competition,” says Nastro. For example, why not fly to New York from Chicago on Delta and return on American?—“almost building your own itinerary,” she says.

Let destination deals dictate your flight booking choices

If you are truly airfare deal focused (obsessed?), Nastro advises letting the deals themselves dictate the destinations you choose, versus fixating on a destination and hoping a deal “falls in your lap.”

Signing up for an airfare deal tracking service or newsletter like Going or Dollar Flight Club is one great way to do this. When unbeatable flight deals get delivered to your inbox, let that inspire your next getaway—it’s impulsive travel at its best, and most affordable. (Consumer travel media also cover and spotlight standout fare sales so it’s smart to sign up for those newsletters as well.)

Another way to do this is through a tool such as United Airlines’ recently unveiled “shop by map” feature that allows travelers to enter where they are flying from, possible travel dates (you can either select within the next 30 days or set a specific time frame), and the maximum you want to pay. You can even refine the search based on specific travel interests such as national parks, beaches, culture, food and drink, skiing, and snorkeling. United then provides pricing for flights worlwide in a map view, highlighting some of the lower fares across the, well, map.

Fly during shoulder season

Since summer 2023 is turning out to be one of the most expensive air travel seasons in recent memory, may we take this opportunity to spotlight one of our favorite times of the year to travel? Shoulder season—those quieter moments in spring, fall, and winter that exist between the busy school and holiday breaks. With fewer travelers on the road, and lower demand for travel, this is a time when airlines often roll out attractive fares and sales to motivate bookings. Hopper estimates that you can save as much as 30 percent off peak summer flights in July and August just by traveling in September.

Opt for a red-eye or a layover

We know—it’s not for everyone. But for those who can sleep decently on a plane (perhaps armed with an amazing travel pillow) or are willing to be a bit groggy upon arrival, red-eye flights (flights that travel through the night) are typically less expensive, advises Muriel Assouline, managing director for French low-cost airline French Bee. They also maximize your time on the ground.

As for adding a connection to your flight, according to Google, a “willingness to take a layover is one of your best bets to save money when you fly. On average, nonstop fares have been 20 percent higher than a flight with stops,” the company writes in its recent blog post on how to save when you fly.

Fly out of alternative and nearby airports

Assouline notes that you’ll often find deals, or flights offered by low-cost carriers, when you expand your search to “the next largest airport after the obvious choice”—like Paris Orly in addition to Paris Charles de Gaulle. Alternatively, “Sometimes hitting the road to another, larger airport might be worth the savings of flying out of a smaller, closer airport,” says Nastro. She gave the example of someone who lives outside of Philadelphia and is thinking of flying to Paris this October. “The tickets from Philly are currently $946 roundtrip, but if you drove just an hour and a half away to Newark, your ticket cost for the same trip would only be $506, saving you $440,” notes Nastro.

Get flash sales delivered to your inbox—via airline loyalty programs

They may be called “loyalty” programs but don’t feel you need to be loyal to just one. Sign up for all the airline loyalty programs, not just so that you make sure you are clocking those points and miles whenever you fly, but also to ensure that that you’re on all the airlines’ mailing lists and will be the first to hear about flash sales. You can do this online or through their apps—and seriously, they often send those deals out to customers at the same time that they alert the media about them (we would know).

Set a price alert

Setting up a price alert through a booking site like Google, Kayak, or Hopper is a no-brainer during the research phase of shopping for airfares. What better service than an automatic price tracker that will ping you when the particular flights you are interested in go up or down? It’s like having your own personal flight tracking assistant. For those who have some flexibility on when they travel, Google’s price alert feature allows users to turn on tracking for “any dates,” which will notify them if the price drops for their flights for departures anytime in the next three to six months.

Use a fare comparison calendar

Honestly, how did we even shop for airfares prior to fare comparison calendars on airline websites and travel booking sites like Google? These have become so common and convenient that using them has become an essential part of the flight booking process. Fare comparison calendars remain one of the most valuable tools in the airfare shopping tool kit. Look at the full spread of airfares throughout the month or even the year during which you are hoping to travel so that you can get a very clear picture of how much airfares go up and down and when’s the best time to book.

Book a vacation package that includes air and hotel

As reported by AFAR’s special correspondent for air travel Barbara Peterson, “airlines will often offer a lower airfare for those choosing a bundled option (for instance, via JetBlue Vacations or British Airways’ air and hotel package deals—the British Airways deals in particular are pretty enticing).” Seriously, the deals are darn good.

Rebook your flight if the airfare drops

During the pandemic, all the major U.S. airlines—Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Hawaiian, and United—ditched their long-standing change fee policies for all but basic economy fares. (Southwest hadn’t charged a change fee even prior to the pandemic.) That means flight changes are now much easier and won’t cost you. Previously, it often wasn’t worth it even if the fare had come down, because a change fee of $200 meant that you wouldn’t actually pay any less and could even pay quite a bit more to change a flight. But now, if the price drops, you can cancel the flight, get the travel credits, and rebook at the lower cost without incurring any fees—as long as you hadn’t booked a basic economy fare. You’ll get your money back in flight credits rather than cash, but it’s still worth a shot if you think you’ll use the credits within the time frame that they will be valid for (some airline credits don’t expire).

Don’t stop searching

In partnership with the above item, just because you’ve booked your flight doesn’t mean you should stop searching for good prices. Keep clicking around via the airlines or booking sites and leave those price alerts in place. Because you’ll want to know if the airfare does come down so that you can respond accordingly (and by respond accordingly, we mean cancel and rebook the lower fare, of course).

the tail of several British Airways airplanes

An AFAR insider says that British Airways’ Avios program offers “phenomenal value” on mileage redemption.

Use a travel credit card to stock up on miles

Airline miles are essentially travel currency—travelers can use miles to pay for flights, greatly reduce the price of a flight, or to upgrade their class of service. And when great travel credit cards offer attractive mileage bonuses, travelers can put their everyday spending to use by having it earn them some miles. When done right, this is a way to get mileage “for free” if you are earning the miles based on spending that you were doing anyway.

Book early for the best redemption value on airline miles

Once you’ve banked those miles using a travel credit card, you’ll need to book as early as possible when the mileage charges are lowest. The closer you get to the travel date, the fewer and the more expensive the options for redeeming miles. For instance, you might be able to book a one-way international economy flight for as little as 15,000 or 20,000 miles if you book early (we’re talking several months out). But that can quickly jump to 70,000 miles or more if you wait.

How to maximize your miles

Paul Rubio, AFAR’s special correspondent for points and miles gave us this insider tip on how to get the most bang out of your mileage buck: “While most frequent flyer programs have now adapted models of dynamic pricing (pegged to a weak dollar rate), British Airways’ Avios program still presents phenomenal value on flights, thanks to a distance-based award chart that’s not pegged to a dollar amount,” explains Rubio.

He notes that British Airways is part of the Oneworld alliance network, “so flights on Oneworld partners American Airlines and Alaska Airlines can be booked with Avios.” Added bonus: All major credit card loyalty programs through American Express, Chase, Capital One, and Citi transfer to Avios at a 1:1 ratio.

“To clarify with a quick example,” he adds, “this August the lowest priced one-way flight in business from Miami, Florida to Providenciales, Turks & Caicos using miles on American Airlines is 25,000 AAdvantage points. Yet when booking the same one-way using Avios, it costs only 15,000 miles and the same amount of taxes of $92.55. That’s 40 percent less miles!”

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