A little creativity and flexibility can save you buckets of money on airfares.
If you've looked into booking flights the past few months, you've probably experienced some serious sticker shock. As a travel junkie, I peruse plane tickets regularly for fun, and I've seen some absolutely nutso prices, especially during peak summer dates. You can always expect to pay more during popular travel times, but it's not usually this bad.
According to CNBC, bonkers prices are not just a figment of our imagination. Plane ticket prices have risen 25% in the past year, far outpacing the rising inflation we're feeling elsewhere. Part of the reason is fuel costs are up—by a whopping 150%. Another reason is that airlines are trying to recover some of their losses that occurred during the pandemic. Finally, people are desperate to travel, so demand is high and people are apparently willing to shell out gobs of dough to get out of Dodge.
However, just because ticket prices have climbed doesn't mean there aren't deals to be had. You just have to know where, when and how to find them.
Finding deals does take a little work. To really get the best prices, you have to be willing to play around with your travel variables (dates/times/airlines/airports/destinations), so it's not like there's some magical, one-size-fits-all money-saving solution. But these guidelines and tips will help give you a place to start to save money on airfare, even when prices go up.
1. When you travel matters far more than when you book your plane tickets.
People often ask, "When's the best time to buy plane tickets?" I've heard everything from certain days of the week to certain time frames before your planned departure being the best time to buy. There is a general guideline for when to book that's frequently shared by travel experts:
Domestic flights: 1 to 3 months in advance
International flights: 2 to 8 months in advance
However, plane ticket prices change constantly, every airline prices their flights differently and the volatility of fuel prices makes a lot of this unpredictable.
What matters more than when you book is when you actually travel. Demand is fairly predictable and peak times will almost always be more expensive. Summer, three-day weekends, the spring break period (mid-March through mid-April), Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks are bound to set you back unless you are really flexible in the dates you can travel.
(One caveat on holidays: Because Thanksgiving is a solely American holiday and most people spend it with their families here, it can be a great time to travel internationally, as demand to leave the country is low that week.)
Off-peak is where it's at. Not everyone can swing it with work and school schedules, but if you can, late September through October, late January through early March, and most of May tend to be the cheapest times to fly.
2. Check airfares frequently, as prices change constantly—and sometimes drastically.
Airfares are always changing. In fact, prices can change several times a day. One reason I like to peruse plane tickets frequently, even if I'm not actively making travel plans, is so that I can actually recognize when a ticket is a good deal.
Google Flights is your best friend for this. If you have someplace you think you might want to go someday, start doing some daily or weekly searches on the Google Flights calendar (which I'll explain below). If you have a specific destination and dates already locked down, the same rule stands. Check frequently so that 1) You know the range of prices and 2) Can tell when a good price comes along.
3. Get to know Google Flights and its various filters.
Google Flights is easily the most versatile and user-friendly flight search tool, and the great news is, it's free! The only real bummer is there's no app, so you have to work from a browser. That's a small price to pay for being able to search almost every airline at once and see entire months' calendars of the lowest-priced tickets, though.
7-day, round-trip airfares from Seattle to Chicago range from $140 to $472 in August and September.
Screenshot via Google Flights
Google Flights shows you the same prices you'll see on the airlines' websites, and it can be much easier to use than any individual airline website. (I don't know why so many airline website fare calendars are so cumbersome to navigate, but they are.) You can use Google Flights to find the best price, then go to the airline website to find that flight to book. (Thrifty Traveler has a nice, detailed tutorial for utilizing the various Google Flights filters.)
5. But don't book a flight until you check Southwest Airlines first.
Southwest Airlines is not in Google Flights, so you have to search its website separately. A bit of a pain, but worth it. Southwest is frequently (though not always) cheaper than other airlines—and it lets you check two bags per person for free. Often that checked bag fee savings alone is worth booking on Southwest. Some of its planes don't have the bells and whistles of other airlines—the last two Southwest flights I took didn't even have electrical outlets to plug in my phone or computer—but I've always found the crew to be friendly and service to be quite good.
(One note: You don't get to choose your seat ahead of time on Southwest, so if you're traveling with a group and want to sit together it can get dicey. Checking in right at the 24-hour mark puts you closer to the front of the queue to board, but there's still no guarantee to get the seat you want. For some, that's a dealbreaker, but for others, it's worth the savings.)
6. Search for one-way tickets in addition to round-trip fares.
This piece of advice may come as a surprise, as many of us were taught that booking one-way tickets was way more expensive than booking round-trip. That's no longer the case. I always search for both round-trip and one-way tickets, and I frequently find two one-ways—often on two different airlines—to be cheaper than a round-trip ticket. Who knew?
7. Watch out for hidden fees and exclusions on discount carriers.
That Frontier or Spirit or Allegiant Airlines flight might look dirt cheap, but when you find out it doesn't even include a carry-on bag in that price, you may find that it's not worth it. Southwest is unique in that it is a lower-cost airline that doesn't charge extra fees and actually includes more free baggage than most standard airlines. Most discount airlines tack on fees for everything from bags to snacks, so it's good to know what's included and what's not in your airfare. Discount carriers will get you where you're going, but if you want to take anything with you, you might end up actually paying more in the end.
8. Search alternative airports near your departure and destination locations.
If you're flying to or from a large city, there are usually multiple airports you can choose from. And if you're flying to or from a small town, there are often airports within an hour's drive that may (or may not) be significantly cheaper to fly in and out of. You may be surprised by how much you can save using alternative airports that you didn't even know existed, so do a quick Google Maps search for airports nearby and search those in Google Flights as well. (Depending on where you're going, some smaller airports in large metro areas might actually get you closer to where you need to be on your vacation anyway. I know this can be the case in Southern California, at the very least.)
9. The more flexible you can be with travel dates and times, the better.
This is probably the biggest key factor in saving money on flights. I mentioned the off-peak times savings earlier, but even changing travel plans by just a day can save you a ton. People often don't realize how much prices can vary for the same route within the same week or month. For instance, looking right now at Seattle to Chicago one-way tickets, prices in November range from $70 to $249. You can see it in the Google Flights screenshot above as well. Even just a one-day difference can mean paying double the price, so the more flexible your dates, the better your chances of snagging a reasonably priced ticket.
10. Learn about the credit card/airline/hotel points and miles travel game.
Most of this airfare savings advice is applicable to the short term, but by far the best way to save on plane tickets is to basically get them for free. That's a long game. Sometimes called "travel hacking," the points/miles game is a fairly complicated but incredibly valuable hobby to take up if you want to save loads of money on travel.
I started playing the game far later than I should have and wish someone had impressed upon me how mind-blowing the savings were going to be when you know what you're doing. If you use a credit card that gives you points for cash back or to use for other things, you will get much more out of it if you learn how to maximize those points to make travel much, much more affordable. (I promise I'm not selling anything here. It's genuinely something I recommend to everyone, simply because it's amazing what people can do when they learn how the points/miles game works. You can learn more about it here.)
Even when plane ticket prices skyrocket, there are always some deals to be had with a little creativity and flexibility. Hopefully, these tips can help you save on airfare as you make travel plans during this weird, wonky, unpredictable time.