Most of y'all probably know that I am passionate about travel. With vaccination rates rising and countries opening up for tourism, now might be a good time to think about planning your next vacation. Personally, I am SO ready to travel! Airfare is often the most expensive component of travel, so it makes sense to do what you can to save. I LOVE planning travel; here are a few tips I've learned over the years that can help you get a great deal.
Be Flexible--Most folks will pick a destination first, then work to fill in the details (airfare, hotels, activities, etc.). However, if you're looking to save money, some flexibility in destination or travel dates can save you a ton.
Google Flights is your new best friend--Google Flights is an extremely powerful tool for searching for great airfares. There are lots of search engines for finding airline fares but Google Flights offers the most flexibility. (My next favorite is Momondo.com.). There are some great tutorials here and here to help you make the most of Google Flights, so I'm not going to reinvent the wheel and tell you how to do it. However, I do want to highlight a few key points that will demonstrate why you should spend some time learning the ins and outs of Google Flights.
- Google Flights has an "Explore" function that will help you determine the best locations and dates to visit. The more flexible you are, the better deals you'll find.
- With Google Flights you can add multiple airports in any search (up to seven departures and/or destinations). My home airport in Atlanta is notorious for having fewer sales because Delta has a massive presence here. But if I'm willing to fly from Birmingham, Chattanooga or Charlotte, I can frequently get a much better deal. Also, if you live in a city with more than one airport, you can use their city code and search all nearby airports. For example WAS will search Dulles, National and Baltimore airports.
- Weed out airlines you don't want to fly. Say you don't want to fly Spirit, even if they are dirt cheap (raises hand.) You can leave them out with a click of your mouse. You can also choose to include only specific airlines.
- Google Flights has a super handy Date Grid and Price Graph feature located on the right side of search results. The date grid will show prices for dates immediately before and after your chosen dates and easily display which are the cheapest. The Price Graph will show the rates over several months.
- Like other flight search engines, Google Flights does not display fares from Southwest so you'll need to visit their website directly to check for sales. And you totally should because Southwest has some great perks (free checked bags, no change/cancellation fees, etc.)
Days and Months to Travel--There's no perfect time of year to fly nor is there a perfect day of the week but there are broad trends that are useful to know. The cheapest days to fly are generally Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Sunday, Monday, and Friday are generally the most expensive because business travelers fly these days. The cheapest months of year to fly are mid January-March, October, November. Not surprisingly, the most expensive months are December-mid-January, June, July, and August. But that doesn't mean you can't get a deal on more expensive days or months. You just need to plan ahead, be a bit creative and do what you can to maximize flexibility. For example, with kids in school we generally can't fly much of the year. But because their school year ends in late May, we try to travel the first week of June when the tourist season has not fully started. This means lower prices on accommodations, less crowds, and yes, cheaper fares (if you're patient and flexible). Another pro tip: if you are looking for an international vacation, consider traveling over Thanksgiving. Most kids are out of school and it's generally pretty easy to take vacation time. Unlike domestic flights which are crazy expensive, there can be some amazing deals on international travel.
When to Book: The best time to book domestic flights is generally 1-3 months in advance. For international flights it is 2-8 months. The absolute worst time is at the last minute.
Remember the 24 hour rule: If you find a good deal but aren't 100% certain you can take the trip, you can cancel your flight and get a full refund with no penalty in the following circumstances (you must meet all the conditions): the flight is either completely within the US or travels to/from the US to an international destination, it has been less than 24 hours since you booked the flight and you booked directly with the airline. Some online travel agencies like Expedia will honor this as well but I usually just book directly at the airline.
Credit Card Points and/or Frequent Flyer Miles--I'll start with a caveat: some rewards programs (particularly points) can be very complicated and I don't fully understand it all. But in certain scenarios they can make a huge difference. For example, my Delta AmEx card gives me a free checked bag on all Delta flights--and not just for me--for everyone traveling with me on the same reservation. If I were to travel with my family of 7, this alone could save us over $200 per leg. Most airlines will have an associated credit card with a similar deal. Other credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire card have a lot of travel benefits as well. The best place to learn about these is at The Points Guy. His site is very comprehensive (you can go down a rabbit hole for hours) but if you're serious about saving on travel, it's worth exploring.
Urban Legends--These are oldies but goodies.
- Airlines no longer "release" their sale fares on a particular day of the week. While this was true in the past, the algorithms used to price fares result in changes all the time.
- You do not need to clear your cookies or use an incognito browser to get the best fares. I'm sure airlines do track your behavior on their sites, however, on aggregate, it really doesn't seem to make a difference in price. Prices change all the time because airfare is inherently volatile. Any given flight can have 12 or more different fare classes: each with different prices, restrictions, and number of seats. If a fare changes, it could be because they sold out of all the seats in a particular fare class. It's not going to hurt to clear you cookies or use an incognito browser, but it probably won't help either.
- It's expensive to fly from smaller regional airports (or it's expensive to fly from a particular airport because it's a hub). These places may not get deals quite as often but they do get good sales regularly if you pay attention and (to beat it into the ground), you're flexible.
- It's best to wait for advertised sales. Nope. The cheapest fares are unadvertised sales. If you don't want to constantly be checking for deals, set up reminder on Google Flights; they'll email you when the price changes. Or consider signing up for a service like Scott's Cheap Flights. They will let you know right away about all the best deals from your chosen airports. They have three membership tiers: a free plan, which is quite limited, Premium ($49/year) which gets you quite a lot of deals from your your home airport as well as any others, and a new Elite tier ($199/year) which sends deals on premium economy, business, and first class. I've been a Premium member for years and it has always paid for itself with just one trip.
There are many more suggestions and strategies that can help you to save a lot of money on flights, I just can't list them all. If there's an important one I missed, let me know.