How to Find the Cheapest Airfare Possible

Follow my advice, and your next plane ticket will be a fraction of what the average chump pays.

I don’t take trips as often as I’d like (who does?), but I do find a lot of good deals on airfare. In the past year, I’ve found round trip, tax-and-fee included airfare from NYC that would make you cry: $205 to Barcelona, $626 to Sydney, and $287 to Buenos Aires. The last one I booked, but the first two I let go like a cat toying with a mouse. If I had my druthers, I’d go where the airfare free markets take me. But I also have bills to pay and people to entertain, so when I’m not selfishly hoarding these fares, I’ll happily keep you abreast of them.

Travelers in 2010 have a vast array of options, however I still hear all too often about people overpaying for tickets, when a little legwork would have saved them hundreds. If money is not an issue, I can totally understand just booking the flight according to schedule or airline so you don’t have to think about it any more. But if you’re setting a budget, and you can save $200 on a flight, well, that’s $200 more you can spend on meals, lodging and entertainment. Yet even supposedely frugal budget travel magazines and web sites continually overestimate airfare to make the “deals” they find sound appealing. If you’re willing to put in a little effort on your own, and not accept what someone else is calling a “deal,” you’ll save enough money on your flight to enjoy your destination even more.

Here is the Adam Underhill method for finding the best deal on airfare:

  • Use meta-searching travel sites. In my opinion, the best site for searching for airfare, hands-down, is Kayak – but similar sites such as Mobissimo, Fly.com, and Bing Travel are just as useful. These sites aggregate fares from other search engines (e.g. Expedia, Orbitz) as well as the airline sites. Different sites have different bells and whistles. Kayak has a section called “Buzz” (it’s found by clicking “More” on the main page), which allows buyers to search for the lowest fare from any destination to different regions, during any month. Bing Travel has a feature that’s like a stock predictor; it advises users whether to buy or wait based on the likelihood of a price change. Drawback: Inconsistency and inaccuracy. Fares found on sites like these may have changed on the sites selling them. If you find an unbelievable price, trust, but verify.
  • Know the status quo. This is something that some travelers have a feel for, and others might have to write down on paper. Every economy class ticket from any place to any place has a normal price range, and if you don’t know it then you won’t know if you’re overpaying or getting a steal. From New York City, I know that on average a ticket to Rome should cost about $500. For peak travel seasons to Rome (Spring, Summer, Fall) prices can shoot up to $1100 if you buy far in advance – a huge ripoff unless money is no object. (If money were no object, you would be flying first class, and not reading this.) During winter months or periods of unsold ticket-dumping, you might find one for as low as $300. Drawback: Sometimes status quo is the best you will find. Be savvy; if it’s three weeks or less before your trip, don’t wait for a price drop. Which brings me to my next point,
  • Know when to buy/know when to travel. Avoid peak travel times for your destination. Rio de Janeiro during Carnival might cost you $800-1,000, versus $500-750 other times of year (to say nothing of the hotel costs once you get there). Australia over Christmas and New Year’s will cost you a second mortgage. However! You can cheat even peak travel prices by knowing when to buy. Your flight from LA to Kansas City to see the family over Thanksgiving might be $400 if you buy it in late October, when everyone in America is searching. If you search in August, chances are you will find something in a much friendlier price range. But Adam, you say, who thinks about Thanksgiving in August? Exactly. Conversely, however, buying too far in advance will also screw you. Searching in January for a flight to Athens in June will probably get you prices of $1000. If you wait until April, when airlines get a little more desperate, you’ll see a dramatic drop in price. These things aren’t set in stone, so it’s important to keep checking in and strike while the iron is hot. You should not only know what time of year to buy, but what time of the week. For budget travelers, that sweet spot is 12:01 a.m. Wednesday morning. This is when airlines reduce unsold fares for quick sales. You might still find them later on Wednesday if you don’t want to stay up late Tuesday night, but there are no guarantees they’ll still be around. In any case, avoid booking on weekends – stick to mid-week if you can. Drawback: You’ll have to put in the time, and sometimes it will feel like you’re in a constant state of flight-searching. But what’s so bad about that?
  • Be flexible. It’s an old saw when it comes to traveling, but it bears repeating. Accept that you will have connections. Be willing to depart at midnight, or six a.m. Include surrounding airports in your search. Fly an unfamiliar foreign airline. Keep your dates open; fly mid-week or on Saturday if it will save you $100. You should also keep your destinations open. Maybe you want to go to Kenya, but aren’t finding good deals. Search other trips that might interest you, from Iceland to Vietnam. This might sound like the tail is wagging the dog a little, because it is, but unless all you want is a hotel and a beach, your trip should take you out of your comfort zone at least a little bit. We all have our deal-breakers, but try not to be too rigid about your journey because once you get to wherever you want to go it will (hopefully) be worth it. Drawback: There aren’t any, as long as you can be as zen as possible.
  • Make use of multiple airlines. This I would only recommend if it’s really worth it. Say you want to fly to Egypt, but tickets are $1100. Run some searches on London or Paris. If you can find something for $400-600, it might be worth it to go there and THEN book a discount flight to Egypt (such as EasyJet or Ryan Air) for another couple hundred bucks. Drawback: You will lose time, have to retrieve luggage, probably have to schlep to another, smaller airport. This is not worth it if your time is limited or you’re traveling with kids. I only recommend it if the price disparity is significant.

Remember, technology is your friend. Travel agents are still useful if you’re looking for reputable resorts, hotels, or tours, but when it comes to airfare, you can find jaw-dropping deals if you follow the methods I’ve outlined. Of course I’ll still keep you posted when I find a terrific deal – if I don’t book it myself first.

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