If it seems like the airlines always have a few tricks up their sleeves to get you to pay more, it’s not your imagination. Whether it’s new airline fees (like for carry-on bags), surprise seat-selection charges, or coordinated price hikes for popular travel days, airlines are always doing something to get hold of a little more of your money.
Fight back with these tips. Some are new, some are new twists on tried-and-true strategies, and some are specific to this summer. Altogether, they’ll give you a fighting chance at taming the high cost of your summer flights.
Best Day of the Week to Book
Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no “best day” to book airfare. There categorically is a best day (and time, too) for booking domestic flights—and it’s Tuesdays around 3:00 p.m. EST. It makes sense when you understand the process: Early Tuesday morning is when Southwest and sometimes JetBlue announce their new sales. It then takes a few hours for those creaky, lumbering behemoths known as the legacy carriers (American, Delta, United) to get around to matching the low-cost carriers’ prices on the specific sale routes.
By mid-afternoon on the East Coast, the whole “fare war” machine is in full gear, giving you the best possible availability on multiple airlines competing for your business at the same sale prices. Most sales are good for 72 hours, from Tuesday through Thursday, so even if you can’t purchase right at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, you’ll still have a shot at the sale prices for a few more days—although you may have fewer low fares (and fewer airlines) to choose from.
Best Days of the Week to Fly … Except When They’re Not
The cheapest days to fly are typically Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. This is sound advice year-round, but it’s especially worth noting in the summer when prices skyrocket around busy weekend travel. But even those midweek days can be extra-expensive when they fall on or around a holiday people travel for—such as Wednesday, July 3, this year.
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How Far in Advance to Book
The airfare booking sites that mine their transaction histories to find out the best dates to buy tell us that the optimal time to buy a ticket is seven to 11 weeks in advance—the shorter end of that time band is for domestic travel, the longer end for international. If you’d rather wait for a possible flash sale, fares climb only a few percentage points above their low point until three to four weeks before departure. But don’t wait any longer than that: You’ll pay top dollar as departure date approaches and options run out.
Travelers not committed to specific travel dates can search a range of feasible dates for the best airfares. One of the most robust such systems, Google Flights, displays fares for each day up to a year in advance. Several other online agencies use the same ITA software that Google uses. This and other flexible search systems work quite well over a two-to-three month period; displays showing fares airlines post for dates further out are less likely to be accurate as airlines subsequently fine-tune their offerings. Many individual airline systems also allow for flexible search. But keep in mind that knocking a few dollars by traveling when fares are lowest may not compensate for either reduced time at your destination or added daily expenses.
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Know Your International Gateways
The biggest (and therefore cheapest) U.S. gateways for international travel are (alphabetically) Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Ft Worth, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington/Baltimore. That’s where you generally look for the most competition and lowest fares. But the low-fare lines such as Norwegian Air generally fly to such secondary airports as Stewart Field/Newburgh and Providence. That’s part of Norwegian’s business model: to connect Europe with smaller and “second cities.”
In Europe, the main transatlantic gateways are Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt, London, Madrid, and Paris. In Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, are the top traditional gateways, but the handful of new Chinese lines are offering flights—often at great fares—to many big Chinese cities.
Make a Stop
Often, airlines charge less—sometimes a lot less—on routes that connect through one of their hubs than they charge for nonstops. A longer trip and the hassles of connecting offset the fare advantage in some cases, but not in all. If you accept a connecting flight, try to avoid delay-prone airports like JFK and Newark.
To Europe, airlines based at Istanbul, Keflavik, Kiev, Lisbon, Moscow, and the Gulf States often undercut nonstop fares to/from the main gateways. Similarly, some of the Chinese lines undercut the legacy competitors’ nonstop fares with connections through their local hubs. But “savings” on connecting fares come at a price of many more hours in the air and waiting around connecting airports.
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Know Your Low-Fare Lines
If you’re looking for a rock-bottom fare in the U.S. or Canada, make sure you consider Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, and Swoop—lines that almost always have the lowest fares where they fly. Although not strictly low-fare lines, JetBlue and Southwest often lead in maintaining low fares on the routes they fly. Keep in mind that most search engines do not show Southwest schedules and fares. Also keep in mind that Allegiant flies mainly from small, underserved airports, to big tourist destinations, and mostly only two or three times a week.
Low-fare lines can be especially important for transatlantic travel. The problem, however, is that most of them are in financial trouble. By far the largest transatlantic low-fare line, Norwegian, is reportedly in shaky financial condition, and Primera and WOW have both failed. If you see a great deal on a low-fare line, insurance against failure might be a good idea.
Figure the Full Cost
Several years ago, the low-fare lines introduced unbundled fares: The fare covers nothing more than a seat, and everything else comes as an “optional” extra. Lately, the giant lines are copying that idea and featuring bare-bones basic fares without any extras. Often, however, those extras might not be truly optional. On some trips, for example, a checked bag and meals may be virtual necessities, and advance seat assignments may also be great for folks traveling together, and a necessity for those traveling with kids.
So far, no search engine I know allows you to enter all the extras you want and then compare what you have to pay for what you select. So when you go on a search, you need to decide, in advance, what extras you really want, then check total costs, not just base fares. Keep this in mind especially if you want to check bags, where Southwest’s two-bags-free policy gives it a $50 to $60 built-in advantage over other lines’ lowest offerings.
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Regardless of data on best days to buy, airfare flash sales generally get you the truly lowest fares. Typically, the purchase window is only a few days, but sales usually cover travel over several months. Unless you want to spend hours every day checking the many sources, the best way to keep track of flash sales is by signing up for sale bulletins such as our sister site Airfarewatchdog‘s. Big OTAs also offer similar options, as do individual airlines. And regardless of long-term trends, follow George Hobica’s rule from AirfareWatchdog: When you see a good deal, pounce. The best deals don’t last long.
Ask a Travel Agent
Sometimes you need help. It’s OK to admit it. If your itinerary is complicated, a travel agent’s expertise could be the difference between a smooth experience and an airport disaster—not to mention an airline-fee surprise or two. Be wary of tight connections on different carriers, for example. I’ve seen flights from online travel agencies (OTAs) that would have allowed me to book a too-tight connection on airlines operating in completely different terminals; the OTA would keep my money and I’d be stuck waiting standby for the next flight out because I missed my connecting flight. If you’re feeling confused or overwhelmed, don’t just wing it and hope for the best. Ask for help.
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Buy Direct from the Airline
Don’t assume you’ve finished your homework once you’ve checked the major metasearch sites and Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia. Once you identify a flight you want, check directly on the airline’s website for the same flight. Not all discounted flights are available to the OTAs. (Southwest, for example, doesn’t sell seats on any third-party sites.) You may find an even better price, a better connection, or a better seat by booking airline-direct.
Look for Promo Codes
I’ve never been much of a coupon clipper, personally. But when it comes to travel, there’s money to be saved through coupons—and we’re not talking $0.50 off your next box of cereal. Some airlines offer up to 50 percent off flights for anyone willing to poke around for a special code, sometimes sent to members in emails and posted on public promo code forums. And have you checked your favorite airline’s Facebook or Twitter pages lately? Granted, they may not be the most scintillating conversationalists, but you can find great deals just for being a follower.
What are your tricks for taming summer airfares? Have any of these strategies worked for you? Have they failed? Comment below.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.