9 Surefire Steps to Cheaper Airfare

How to get the cheapest plane tickets possible in 9 easy steps, from search engines and major airlines to opaque fares, consolidator fares, vacation packages, last-minute deals, and travel bargain newsletters

We'll get to the whole "10-Step" bit in just a minute. First, links to the answers to the two Big Questions.

So, How Do I Find the Cheapest Airfare?

Ah, the heart of the matter. Remember that old travel truism: no two people flying in the cheap seats actually paid the same price for their tickets, even though they're going to the same place and getting the same service.

Reid's shortcut to the best fares
All of the airfare hunting techniques mentioned on this site have merit, but, honestly, if I had to narrow it down to three crucial places to check, they would be:

1) The aggregator MomondoPartner
2) The consolidator AutoEurope
3) Any alternative airlines

Nine times out of ten, I end up booking my plane tickets to Europe through one of those methods.
The guy in 22B might have ponied up $1,300, while the person in 22C with whom he amiably chats during takeoff paid just $320 (note to person in 22C: don't break it to him; you'll ruin his vacation).

This site will help you be that guy in 22C.

The secret to landing the least expensive plane tickets every time is to know where the deals are, search wisely, and never pay retail if you can avoid it.

Here is cheat sheet on how to do this: a brief roundup of all the tips, steps to take, and websites to use to find the cheapest airfare. Click on any one to get much more information and tips on that particular technique.

1. Know that timing is everything

  1. Know your travel seasons - Outside of ski or beach destinations (both popular in winter), high season—and high prices—generally runs June 15–Sept 1 and Dec 15–Jan 6. Full story
  2. Buy at the right time - Never buy more than four months ahead of time. The sweet spot is 8–12 weeks out. Track fares with Bing.com, FareReport.comYapta.com. Full story
  3. Be flexible - Look into flights leaving/returning a day or two earlier or later for potentially huge savings. Full story

Don't pay retail

  1. Watch those fees!
    With many airlines now charging to check even a single bag, or to pick your own seat, or for the meal, headsets, and even a pillow and blanket, it helps to know the a la carte fees before you fly. These sites take stock of the current fees status:
    • www.kayak.com/airline-fees• www.farecompare.com
    • www.smartertravel.com
    Shop around - Use an aggregator to comparison-shop all the booking engines and travel agencies for you (Momondo.com, Skyscanner.net, Vayama.com, Cheapflights.com, DoHop.com, Mobissimo.com). Full story
  2. Buy wholesale - Consider a consolidator that buys in bulk (AutoEurope.com, CheapTickets.com, CheapOair.com, OneTravel.com, etc.).
  3. Book blindly - Opaque fares from Hotwire.com and Priceline.com come with lower costs, but less control over precise flight times and airlines. Full story

Find the deals

  1. Sign up for E-savers - Individual airlines and major booking sites (Orbitz.comPartner, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com) tout last-minute sales. Full Story
  2. Get fare alerts- Know when the prices to your favorite destinations drop (Bing.com, Airfarewatchdog.com, Farecompare.com, Yapta.com, Farecast.com). Full story
  3. Read deals newsletters - Sign up for esavers at the airlines, and for sale alerts at deals sites like TravelZoo.com, BookingBuddy.com, SmarterTravel.com, Frommers.com/blog. Full story

Deploy insider secrets

  1. Price out vacation packages - Buy air/hotel or air/car (or all three) together at a discount. This is not a tour; your trip is your own (Orbitz.comPartner, Expedia.comPartner, Travelocity.comPartner, AutoEurope.com, Gotoday.com, SceptreTours.com, TourCrafters.com, Gate1travel.com, Untours.com). Full story
  2. Look into alternate airlines - Whether it's a carrier from a third country (say, flying Air France to get to Italy), or a low-cost upstart flying direct. Full story

Beyond the 10 simple steps

Be smart about frequent flier miles
Get elite status on any airline, get perks—no checked bag fees, free exit row seats, first to board, airport lounge—at every airline in its alliance. If you're elite on Delta, you're elite on Alitalia (Skyteam.com, Oneworld.com, Staralliance.com). Full story
There are also two ReidsGuides.com special tactics which I call The Big Apple Switcheroo —booking a cheap airfare to Europe out of NYC and then using no-frills airlines like Southwest to get to the Big Apple—and its Old World cousin The Big Ben Switcheroo —flying into London cheap (remember: London's always cheap), then onward into Europe using a European no-frills airline like easyJet or Ryanair.

Then there are special fares for students, the major airlines, no-frills airlines to get around in Europe, and more.

If any of those methods or options floats your boat (er, flies your plane), click to those sections and keep trying to whittle down the overall price of your vacation.

If you're happy with the regular airfare, then bon voyage!

Book your tickets and then delve into other sections of this site to help plan the rest of your trip, from railpasses to picking hotels to saving money to speaking the lingo.  

Step 1: E-savers >>

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in June 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.