Budget-Friendly Travel: Affordable Airfare

Plane over palm treesIf you ask us, there are few things more appealing than the call of the open sky. From birthday and anniversary trips to family vacations, long weekend getaways, and even solo adventures—there’s no shortage of reasons to start planning your next escape right now. And there’s always another desirable destination that awaits on the other end of that next flight.

But with seemingly endless reasons to plan another trip, the costs can begin to stack up quickly. While traveling on a budget means something different to everyone, the bottom line is that any money saved on your current trip means more money in your pocket for the next one. That’s why we’re launching a new series on budget-friendly travel. And we’re kicking off with our Affordable Airfare edition, featuring our top 15 tips to help you save money on air travel.

Research

First, always approach the flight booking process with a plan. Some light online research, coupled with a little patience, can be a smart strategy that could ultimately save you big bucks on plane tickets in the end. Here are a few ways to get started in this phase of planning.

Set a Realistic Budget—and Stick to It

Your budget will likely depend heavily on where you’re going, with domestic trips generally costing less than international ones (though that isn’t always the case). Wherever you decide to go, try to set a budget that is reasonable for the chosen destination, and do your best to adhere to it. This will ensure you have plenty of cash to spare for the other costs of the trip.

Choose Your Destination Carefully

This tip works best for those who possess a wanderlust without a set place to visit. Sure, your cousin’s destination wedding location is probably not flexible. But when you’re simply looking for a tropical paradise or a winter sports playground, you can set wide search parameters and go where the best fares lead you.

If you’re really up for anything, try the metasearch agency Skyscanner. It can show you the best possible airfares to pretty much all global destinations at any given time, arguably helping you to narrow it down.

Research Fare Trends

When you have a bit less flexibility on the destination, your best bet is to understand what the typical fares to that place are. That way, you can spot a great fare when you see one.

Google Flights has a helpful Price Graph feature that’s visible once you enter a select route with hypothetical dates. Kayak Trends is another resource that aggregates pricing for various destinations across a 3-month trendline. Both can help you to visually understand when airline tickets are priced high or low for a certain time of year.

Separately, The Points Guy blog is an indispensable tool to read up on the latest airline and airfare trends. It can also help you score tips on how to leverage credit card and frequent flyer programs to get the best flight deals.

Set Flight Alerts

Have your heart set on a specific sandy shoreline, and you’re able to travel just about any time of year? Setting alerts for the preferred destination can help you grab the best flight deals whenever they might pop up. Google Flights, Kayak, Skyscanner, and another of our favorite travel apps, Hopper, offer flight alert services that you can easily customize and update as your desired travel plans may evolve over time.

Give Yourself Time

Booking in advance is an excellent way to ensure you’re getting the best airfares for your itinerary. But what does “advance” really mean when it comes to your trip? There’s no set time frame, and the “right time” can vary greatly depending on your destination.

As a general rule, the flight experts at Scott’s Cheap Flights suggest booking between one and three months before a domestic trip, and between two and eight months ahead of an international trip. Timing your search this way can save a lot of money in the long run.

Consider

Considerations for affordable airfare plane over waterWith your flight research in hand, there are a few other things worth considering. So before you pull the trigger on booking or even just looking up the actual flights, ask yourself:

Can You Avoid Peak Season?

The airfare alerts you’ve set for your chosen destinations will go a long way toward helping you get the best deals on airfare. But traveling off-peak can be just as beneficial. Thankfully, no matter your desired travel dates, there’s always a part of the world that’s not in peak season.

Your research, including suggestions from online travel agency (OTA) aggregators like Skyscanner, can point you in the right direction for where to go, and when.

Can You Travel Mid-Week?

While it can vary by airline, most have fairly predictable pricing variations based on the day of the week you’re trying to travel. Weekends, beginning with Thursday evening flights and continuing through Sundays (and sometimes through Monday mornings) can be the highest fares because they’re generally the most desirable times to travel.

Meanwhile, traveling on a Tuesday or Wednesday can save you a lot of money in many cases. Bonus: despite the usual weekend price hike, some airlines offer discounts on Saturday day and evening flights, for those who don’t mind cutting into their weekend with travel.

Can You Use Other Nearby Airports?

This particular travel tip works best for those who live in or around major metropolitan areas. For example, in Washington, D.C., there is a choice of Dulles, Reagan National, and nearby Baltimore-Washington airports; in New York, there’s access to JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, and other smaller regional airports like Westchester and Teterboro.

If you’re flexible and have access to a car or reliable public transportation, consider broadening your flight search to include the entire metro rather than selecting an airport code.

Should You Bundle Flights with Hotel or Car?

It isn’t a guarantee, but some OTAs and even some airlines offer incentives and steep discounts when you book your hotel and even your car rental at the same time as booking your flight. This depends greatly on the specific booking engine or aggregation tool you decide to use. But consider pricing your itinerary both ways—flights only, and flights plus hotel and/or car—to see if you could save on your entire itinerary.

Does The Fare Seem Too Good to Be True?

Like anywhere else, the Internet is full of deals that can seem too good to be true—because in many cases, they are. Tales of the occasional “mistake fare” on airline sites can only perpetuate the idea that it’s possible to get that perfect direct flight for next to nothing. But such mistakes are rare, and there are predatory booking sites and services hoping to cash in on that mystique.

What are the most common schemes? Some will hike the fare once you’ve purchased, others will sign you up for a recurring membership or service you didn’t agree to. Still others will collect your money but fail to book the ticket on your behalf at all. Your research and airfare alerts can help to guide your gut on whether a fare is a proper steal, or a trap worth avoiding.

Book

Woman standing at airport windowYou’ve set your budget, done your research on airfare trends, and you’ve asked yourself all the most important questions about your own flexibility. Now you’re ready to book. Here’s how.

Browse in Incognito Mode

This tip can be a bit divisive, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you begin the booking process. For several years, conventional (digital) wisdom has said that flight booking engines and OTAs use our real-time search histories to raise the airfares that are displayed to us while booking. The idea is that these booking algorithms can “tell” that we’re looking for certain flights on certain dates, thus knowing those flights are valuable to us—then raising the prices accordingly.

This has largely been debunked by a number of travel authorities and journalists, including the good folks over at Scott’s Cheap Flights. This subscription-based travel service scours detailed flight data to send bottom-dollar flight deals (and yes, even those coveted “mistake fares”) to members on a regular basis.

According to its founder, Scott Keyes, any airfare changes you may spot while searching is much more likely the result of general pricing variability or “yo-yoing.” This is because airfares are highly volatile within hours or even minutes of each day. In other words, you’re welcome to clear your cookies or browse incognito, but this step isn’t a sure thing. It just might make you feel better.

Try a Few Configurations

When it comes to booking, besides considering other nearby airports and flexible travel days, another variable you can manipulate is where to book your layover. Granted, it’s tough to beat a direct flight—but layovers can save you money, as they allow airlines to fly more economical hub-and-spoke routes. Being open to just where you lay over can offer big savings.

When In Doubt, Book Direct

Keeping in mind that some OTAs make their money by tacking a small fee onto your ticket, it makes sense to always double check your chosen flight itinerary on the airline’s site directly. In some cases, airlines reward these direct bookings with additional savings, and even if not, booking direct can give you added peace of mind that your ticket is safe and sound.

Join the Airline’s Frequent Flyer Program

As The Points Guy clearly demonstrates, frequent flyer programs can offer big savings. They also provide a range of softer perks like early boarding, reduced baggage fees, lounge access, reward travel and more, depending on the airline and program tier you achieve. Some programs even offer sign-up bonuses that can help you achieve the next level of status on your very first flight.

Decide Whether—and How—to Protect Your Trip

Travel insurance for flights is a personal choice, but it’s worth considering the cost—and not just the price of adding it to your ticket. Consider the possible costs of not being able to take your trip. This could be due to illness, injury, or another last-minute issue.

Some credit cards will protect your trip, provided you booked it on that card. Outside of that, decide if you’re comfortable with the risk, and if you’re not, read the policy fine print to be sure you’re buying the right coverage for your needs.

Cleared for Takeoff

With these budget-friendly flight tips in mind, you’ll be jetting off on your next trip in no time. The only question is where to go first. Stay tuned for more in our series of budget travel tips in the months to come. And sign up for Club Jack, our exclusive email program, so you can be the first to hear about those installments in the series—along with discounts, giveaways, and more!