Buying airline tickets is a lot like gambling or day-trading stocks. Fares go up and down unpredictably. As you get closer to your date of travel, it’s mostly up. But buying a ticket far in advance is not always the answer. You’re just giving the airline your money sooner than you have to, and your plans may change—or the airline might even alter the flight schedule—in the interim.
Most people buy their tickets within 90 days of their trips, so you’re not alone if you procrastinate. (That said, you might regret waiting that long to book a cruise.) Of course, airlines raise fares for travel during peak holiday periods and for last-minute travel, so here are some things to keep in mind as you search for the lowest prices. Traveling on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, for instance, can save you money because business travelers are less likely to book on those days. And going to places like Las Vegas or the Caribbean will likely be most expensive on the weekends when hordes of leisure travelers are on the move.
Here are five more tips that can help you in your quest for cheap last-minute flights.
1. Don’t trust just one website
Independent travel websites claim to find you the lowest fares, but many do not search all airlines. Southwest Airlines, for example, is often bypassed. Shop around. Google Flights and ITA Matrix include the option to perform a month-long search and show the widest array of fares and flight options. Again, many low-cost airlines such as Southwest and Allegiant may not show up in these results—you’ll have to go to their websites to check their fares.
Because these two sites are not booking engines, once you’ve found an airfare that works, you’ll have to go to the airline’s website (or another booking site) to make the reservation. But taking this extra preliminary step could uncover fares that would not appear elsewhere.
On airline websites, don’t assume that search results are sorted starting with the cheapest ticket. Delta.com, for example, may show the quickest connecting time first, and you may have to scroll down to find something more affordable or select the tab that lets you sort fares beginning with the cheapest.
2. Understand airline fare buckets
It’s likely that every person on a given flight has paid a different price. It’s not that airlines are trying to trick you. It’s a smart business practice known as “revenue management,” which allows the airline to get the maximum value out of each seat on the plane, and if it believes it can sell a seat for $500 instead of $200, it will. Prices are determined in part by your origin and destination, of course, but they also have to do with the type of fare you booked. Within each class of service, there are what the industry calls “fare buckets.” Each fare bucket has a set of rules for the ticket, covering cancelations, changes, and so on. The cheapest fare buckets are likely to sell out first. The closer you get to a flight’s departure, the more likely that higher-priced fare buckets will be the only ones available.
3. Don’t automatically buy all your tickets together
When booking a flight for more than one person, begin by searching for just one seat—to find out the price. Then try a search for two tickets (and so on). There may be only one seat in the cheapest fare bucket; when you search for and buy two seats together, the airline might charge you the price of a higher fare bucket. If you get two different prices in the single-seat searches, you could save money by buying the tickets one at a time. This trick is especially valuable when booking family travel. Yes, you might end up not sitting together, but it could mean saving a bit of cash.
4. Consider alternate airports and separate tickets
It can be more expensive to fly to some cities than to others, often because there’s less completion between airlines. If you can’t find the price that you want for a ticket to, say, Lisbon, consider flying into London or Dublin and buying a separate ticket from there to Lisbon. This could save you a lot of money, but it is important to leave ample time to connect, as a delay on the first flight could stifle your onward journey.
Checking bags can also be a pain since not every airline will check your bags to your final destination when you’re traveling on two separate tickets. Before you book, call the airline and ask if it has an “interlining agreement” with the other airline to check your bags all the way through. An airline is off the hook if your baggage doesn’t make it onto a flight booked separately unless it has an interline agreement.
5. Keep an eye on extra fees
A cheap flight may be tempting, but it is important to consider the fees before handing over your credit card number. Many airlines in Europe and Asia, especially low-fare carriers, charge extra for you to select seats, print your boarding passes at the airport, and check bags they consider overweight (by their own standards). All of a sudden, that super-cheap ticket costs just as much as you would have paid on another airline with more convenient schedules.
We all want the best deal from point A to point B, and we can get it by paying attention and keeping a few tricks up our sleeves.
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