Take notes, we’re about to reveal our little-known tips to save money on your next flight.
Table of Contents:
1. Know the Fees Before You Buy
With so many different airline fees, it makes sense to include additional fees when comparing ticket prices.
Bag fees are all over the place now. Spirit airlines has super-cheap rates, but it charges $37+ for a carry-on bag with standard tickets. Wait and you’ll pay even more. Frontier Airlines has started charging for carry-ons now, too.
Southwest and JetBlue don’t charge fees for carry-on or your first checked bag. (Southwest allows a second free checked bag, too)
Change fees differ as well. Southwest still lets you change flights for free at almost any time. Meanwhile, larger carriers like United, Delta, and US Airways charge up to $200 for changes on domestic flights.
For up-to-date bag and change fees, see Kayaks’s list of airline fees for domestic and international airlines.
2. Book at the Right Time
Several factors related to when you book your flight can affect the price. While I often make plans to travel months in advance, I don’t always book my flights right away. I’ve purchased tickets just weeks out and found some of the lowest prices.
Experts confirm this. In fact, there have been actual studies on the best time to book domestic and international flights. One recent study showed that fares change 62 times over the course of 11 months, on average. And it concluded that the prime time to book is between four months to three weeks from the departure date, but that consumers should closely monitor prices before booking.
Luckily, tools exist to automate this process for you. You can set up a flight on Google’s Explore Flights tool. Bookmark the page, and you can get an at-a-glance view of current flight pricing for those locations. Or you can put your departure and destination into Airfare Watchdog and then sign up for an email alert with fares drop.
If you’re more interested in an app-based solution, check out apps like Hopper. This one lets you see how much flights cost for your destination over the course of a year. It also predicts whether flights for certain destinations and dates are likely to rise or fall in price. Another way to shop is Hipmunk, which finds cheap flights and lets you know how they compare to similar flights based on length of layover, in-flight amenities, and more.
Bottom line: booking at the right time is important. But there are plenty of tools that can help you get this piece right without a lot of effort.
3. Use Alternative Fare Comparison Sites
You’ve likely heard of the big-name flight comparison sites like Travelocity, Priceline, Orbitz and others that advertise heavily on TV. From my experience, these sites are good but often return similar results. Instead, I prefer alternate sites that can save me more money.
As mentioned above, Airfare Watchdog is a handy free service that regularly checks fares and emails updates when it finds cheap fares. I get a few emails from this site a week (because I fly cross-country often), and I see prices fluctuate quite a bit. When I see a good fare in my inbox, I buy.
Bing Travel search also provides interesting insights with its travel Price Predictor. You can set your route and dates, and Bing will tell you if now is the time to buy, along with how much the fare could change and how confident it is that this will happen. This feature has saved me more than $50 several times just by letting me know whether I should buy now or wait.
Don’t forget to check airline websites, too. Southwest flights won’t show up on any other website. Often, you may find a better deal booking directly from the airline.
4. Lock in Rates
There are a few different ways you can save on flights even if you’ve already booked.
By law you have 24 hours to cancel your flight after you’ve booked as long as it’s at least a week before the flight. If you’ve found a lower price within that time frame and want to book that fare instead, just cancel the original flight.
Several airlines also allow you to pay a small fee to lock in a fare for your flight. You can book later at the same rate. This can be a good way to lock in a low rate even if you aren’t 100% sure of your travel plans or if you want to shop around a while longer. You may not save money with this option, but it can be a decent thing to try if you see a particularly low rate.
5. Save on Fees with Frequent Flyer Credit Cards
Frequent flyer cards aren’t just for earning miles. Many come with free perks that can end up saving you some money.
Nearly all of these cards offer free checked bags. The best deal is with Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, which offers a free bag for up to nine people in your party, which can save $450 round-trip.
The United Explorer Card offers two free lounge passes a year worth $50 each.
Extra perks like priority boarding make your flight a little more enjoyable, especially when they guarantee overhead bin space.
Related: Best Airline Credit Cards of 2019
6. Push Carry-on Limits
There are several ways to get around checked bag fees. I like to carry everything on–within the guidelines–so I don’t pay more. This means a bag in the overhead bin (sized at exactly the maximum dimensions allowed) and a small backpack to put under the seat in front of mine.
To save space, I use rollable compression bags that cut the volume of my clothing by up to 80%.
If your carry-on bags are close to the limit and might not fit in the overhead bin, many times airlines will allow you to check bags at the gate free of charge.
If you’re traveling in a group, there’s no need for everyone to pay to check a bag, even if you’re carrying liquids. A family of five could consolidate and fill up one or two checked bags. Then pack the rest in carry-on approved sizes.
7. Slim Down and Save on In-Flight Entertainment
Carrying multiple books, magazines, computers and other devices will fill up carry-on bags quickly. While an e-reader or tablet like the iPad might have an upfront cost, you can recoup that if it’s the difference between having to check bags or not.
In-flight entertainment isn’t always free or available, either. If you’re in for a long flight–especially if you’re flying with kids–load on up content ahead of time. You can now max out your Netflix usage by downloading certain show episodes for offline viewing. Or just be sure you have plenty of reading material on hand for both you and the kids.
8. Consider One-Way Airfare
It used to be that booking round-trip airfare was a lot more affordable. But that’s not necessarily the case now. Instead, you might come out on top by being willing to book your “to” trip with one airline and your “home” trip with another airline. This won’t always be the case, but it’s worth looking into as you’re shopping around.
9. Shop for Nearby Cities
Some cities and airports are much more expensive than others to fly into, so be open on this point, especially if you know there are several airports clustered together. This is often the case on the east coast for instance.
Sometimes it’s cheaper to fly from Indianapolis to Boston. But sometimes it’s cheaper to fly from Indianapolis to Providence. Since the airports aren’t that far apart, it’s worth shopping both options. This is particularly helpful if you’re planning to rent a car at your destination, anyway. If you’re within a couple of hours of your final destination, that could be time well worth it to save a couple hundred bucks.
10. Shop Separately
Airlines price different tickets in different pricing tiers. And once the lower-tiered pricing runs out, you’ll have to pay a slightly higher fare. When you’re shopping for a group, though, you’ll likely all get stuck paying the higher fare, even if the lower-fare tickets are available.
So consider shopping for one ticket at a time. This can be a bit of a pain if you’re booking for your family of four. And it can be a dangerous game to play if you’re booking for underage children who will really need to sit with you on the plane. But if this is the case, you can always book one parent with the small child first, and then book the second parent separately. It won’t save money every time, but it could.
Remember, some of these tips involve packing light which is something you’ll need to think about if you’re planning to souvenir shop during your trip. At the very least, this will force you to save on bag fees and keep you from splurging on stuff you really don’t need anyway. That’s a win for your wallet.