An airplane takes off from the run way into the sunset.
If you're able to, being flexible about when you fly out and return makes it much simpler to score a great deal on a flight.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Expert Guide to Finding the Cheapest Flights

Spend Your Money on Experiences, Not on Transportation

Finding a cheap flight has the wondrous quality of making a trip feel “meant to be” — even if it was really only thanks to your thorough research and scouring of airline websites. If you’re looking to experience that feeling of elation you get when you score a great deal on flight tickets, look no further.

Here’s the reality: as much as we’d all like there to be a special trick for how to find the cheapest flights, there is no one shortcut or secret to finding that great deal. It’s something that takes some time and effort, but if you’re willing to do that while keeping these tips in mind, you could end up with some significant savings.

Be Flexible

Arguably the most important factor in finding that cheap flight is to be as flexible as possible with your travel dates. While you may not always be able to do so, if you have the option and are truly intent on traveling on a budget, consider traveling in the shoulder season, which refers to the period just before or after peak season.

For example, the peak season for visitors to Rome is May through September. By going in April or October, you’ll often get the best of everything: pleasant weather, fewer crowds and cheaper airfare too.

There can be a significant difference when traveling to tropical destinations like the Caribbean in the off season — nearly everyone goes in the winter, so summer often brings major discounts.

The day of the week can make a big difference too. The busiest days of the week to fly tend to be Fridays, Sundays and Mondays. If you fly out and return on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you’ll generally get the lowest fares. A Saturday to Saturday is generally the next best bet.

Book Ahead

While there are some aspects of travel you shouldn’t book in advance, flights are do not fall under that category.

If you try to book your airfare at the last minute, it’s likely going to cost you a ton of money. Flights are the most expensive within two weeks of flying, but it’s usually better to book well ahead of that, especially when flying internationally.

In fact, knowing when to book your flight is one of the key factors for saving major cash. Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact number of days out for scoring the cheapest flight possible, though there has been some research that can give you a pretty good idea.

In 2015, CheapAir.com conducted a study that analyzed airline ticket purchases in 2015 to determine when the best airfare deals were landed. The average number of days in advance to buy a domestic flight for travel within the U.S. was 54 days.

That doesn’t mean 54 is always the “magic number,” but the bottom line is prices really are much higher when you book too late — within two weeks — or by booking more than five months in advance.

This doesn’t apply to international flights, however. For flights to Canada and Mexico, CheapAir.com says 75 days is the optimal time, while the best deals to Europe are booked around 120 days out, and Asian destinations are at about 160 days in advance of your travel dates.

If you plan on flying to the Middle East or Africa, that number is as long as 215 days, and the South Pacific is nearly a year ahead of time: 320 days.

Want to fly close to a holiday? You’ll need to book even further in advance, and you shouldn’t expect to get the best price either, as airfare is nearly always higher around peak periods — with some exceptions.

For example, if you want to enjoy a holiday around Thanksgiving outside of the U.S., you can usually get some great deals on flying into Europe, since it’s not a holiday that’s celebrated there.

The bottom line? Rarely ever does airfare get cheaper as your departure date approaches, especially if you need to fly on a certain date. Budget airlines typically offer low rates as a baseline price, and as these tickets sell, the remaining seats increase in cost.

If you know when and where you’re going, don’t wait on an unknown sale. More often than not, the biggest savings come by booking far ahead.

Search for Flights Incognito

If you search for a particular flight more than a few times, you may notice the cost begins to travel in the wrong direction. That’s because, thanks to browser cookies, when you search a particular route a number of times, the site is smart enough to figure out that it may be able to “scare” you into booking quickly before prices go up even more.

Every time you search, enable incognito mode or private browsing by hitting CTRL + SHIFT + N on Google Chrome, or CTRL + SHIFT + P in Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Search Multiple Flight Search Engines

There is no one flight search engine that consistently brings up the lowest airfares, so you’ll need to search multiple sites on a daily basis. Begin by checking a few of the major sites, like Google Flights, Expedia, Kayak and Skyscanner, so you have an idea as to what the average going rate is as well as any restrictions.

Afterward, check the same flights on the airline websites to see if they may be less expensive, as some guarantee the lowest fares on their own websites. You can also find out if the airline is offering any promotional deals for the dates you’d like to fly.

If you aren’t finding the price you’d hoped for and you still have time, hold off for a bit and keep an eye on airfares. You may also want to sign up for alerts so you can get an email when the prices drop.

Kayak.com can help you make the decision as to when to move forward and book. Just enter your itinerary and the site will advise you whether you should book now or wait based on the history of airfares for your destination.

It will even show you a history graph of airfares so you can tell whether or not yours is heading up or down.

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Consider Budget Airlines

Budget airlines don’t always come up in travel search engines like Expedia, so be sure to do some searching on those as well. Flying domestically within the U.S., that means airlines like Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and Jetblue.

In Europe, the major budget airlines include Wow Air, Norwegian Air and Easyjet. Keep in mind that while budget airlines offer significantly cheaper airfare than their full-service counterparts, they typically come with few frills, meaning no “free” snacks or drinks, and less leg room. You should also be aware of what airlines to avoid so you can get the most of our your trip.

You’re likely to have to pay separate fees for baggage and seat assignments too, so be sure to add up all of the costs to make sure it’s really a better deal.

Compare Prices with a Travel Agent

It’s difficult to know when to use a travel agent. It used to be that nearly everyone used one, but with direct access to cheap airfares online today, oftentimes it’s cheapest to book yourself. Still, it is true that travel agents sometimes have access to discount rates that aren’t available to the public.

That’s why it may make sense, especially with long-haul flights, such as the U.S. to New Zealand, to check with a travel agent. Do your research first, and see what the lowest airfare is that you can find, and then ask a professional if they can beat it.

Another advantage of using a travel agent is that they may be able to help you extend a layover so you can enjoy a few days in a city along the way.

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