Airline tickets are expensive, but there are lots of deals out there. The problem is that sales and low prices are often hard to find, even when you know that they are eventually coming.
There are a number of variables that go into an airline’s decision to raise or lower prices, and those variables are constantly changing. It’s no wonder that you hear conflicting advice about the “perfect time” to buy tickets. Some people tell you to buy on a Tuesday, while other may say that it doesn’t matter when you buy, as long as you fly on a Tuesday.
Likewise, you can sometimes find lower prices by buying your ticket very early, but sometimes taking a gamble and waiting until the last minute leads to dirt cheap fares.
In short, there is no single “secret” to finding the cheapest fares every time you fly, but there are some tricks that can put the odds of a cheap flight in your favor. If you employ some of these ideas, your air travel budget will be much less than the average flier.
Know the odds
A survey by CheapAir recently put the optimal time to buy tickets at 54 days before flying. This study also showed that fares were much higher when they were bought less than a month before departure.
Despite the possibility of occasionally scoring a cheap fare less than a week before you travel, the odds are firmly against last-minute buyers. On average, last minute buyers payed $100 more than people who bought their ticket more than month in advance.
The sweet spot for low fares was one to three months before takeoff. Fares were within $10 of the 54-day price for this entire two month period. If you are flying, then waiting for the optimal time window can at least put the odds in your favor.
Look where no one else is looking
Most people buy their airline tickets on third party sites or from a travel agent. These fares are often lower than buying directly from the airline. However, you can sometimes get good deals from the airlines themselves if you know where to look.
Low cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue offer fare sales on their web sites frequently. Even major carriers and international airlines have sales that are announced only on their site and nowhere else. There is no hard and fast rule for when these sales happen, but it is worth checking sites frequently.
Many airlines also post flash sales on Twitter. @JetBlueCheeps has a constant stream of sales. @United and @Delta occasionally announce discounted tickets, but you have to wade through lots of PR tweets to find them. A better policy for major airlines and international airlines is to sign up for their email list. You’ll probably have to wade through some unwanted emails, but at least you will get early notification about upcoming sales.
Third party fare tweeters like @airfarewatchdog notify followers of sales (they even have an email notification option). If you haven’t found a deal by 30 days before you plan to take off, your best policy is probably to play the odds and purchase a full fare before prices start to rise too much.
Changing your ticket
Some people adopt a buy-and-hold policy. They buy very early – three to six months before departure – and then try to exchange their ticket if cheaper fares pop up. The problem with this is that “change fees,” charged if you want to change your ticket, have risen considerably over the past few years. Low cost carriers like Southwest advertise fee-free changes, but these are usually only valid on full fares. So, in general, you’d need a significant price change in order to make this strategy work.
But there is another way to game the airlines
One final “hack” worth trying is to take advantage of airline’s credit card bonuses. Airlines issue credit cards to any applicant who qualifies. The credit cards have rewards points programs. In order to lure new customers, these cards often come with intro bonuses, which are paid in points or airline miles.
The catch is that these bonuses are triggered after you reach a spending threshold. This threshold can be as high as $3,000 (or even $5,000) over a three month period. If you use your card on day-to-day spending and bill paying, you may reach the trigger amount more quickly than you expect. To get the full value for the points, you need to pay off the entire credit card balance each month.
Most of these airline cards have an annual fee that is waived for the first year. Technically, you could earn your free or cheap flight and then cancel the card before the annual fee is due the next year. Canceling your card quickly may hurt your credit score in the short term, but it shouldn’t do any irreparable damage in the long term.
If you are disciplined, these tricks will make it possible for you to get cheap fares time after time.