I hate the process of securing low airfare. It’s frustrating, stressful, and sometimes feels futile. So many elements are out of the traveler’s control: oil prices, airline policies, and other reasons for day-to-day fluctuations in the market. But you can take control of your airfare purchasing by planning ahead…far ahead. Here’s how to find the lowest airfare for your family…consistently:
Be thinking about airfare even before knowing when and where you’re going.
To find the best airfare, I’ve found it helps to be set on only one of two criteria: when you’re going, or where you’re going. If you are flexible on one of these two factors, you’ll be able to snag competitive airfare.
Let’s use the example of a recent airfare purchase I made for a family trip to Cancun. In this case, I knew where we wanted to go, but I was flexible about when. I was able to start at an airfare comparison site to use their fare forecast predictor (I like Kayak). With the predictor, I could see a calendar of fares from my point or origin (more on that later) and my destination. From that chart, I was able to see at a glance that the cheapest time of year for me to visit Cancun was August, and that the cheapest week in August was the third week.
If you are not flexible about when you can vacation (you know you have the last week of July, and that’s that, for instance), try to be flexible about where you go. Start at Airfarewatchdog and enter your home airport to see what destinations pop up on the low fare list. You can set email alerts for a few weeks or months to see what rises to the top.
Note: Let’s say you don’t have any freedom at all: you know you have the last week of July off, and you know you’ll be visiting Grandma in Florida. Is there still hope for you? Yes. By following the next steps below, you can still do as well as is possible for yourself.
Once you know when and where you’re vacationing, determine exact travel dates.
The key here is that you’re still flexible. You’ve identified the week you’re vacationing, but fares fluctuate even in that window. Start at a booking site that specializes in search tools, like Yapta or the aforementioned Kayak. Put in your information, and click on the ‘flexible about dates’ icon. This will present you with fares within a 2-3 day window of your dates. See what comes up.
Once you’ve identified some flight options, open a new window to view each viable fare directly from its airline website. As each home page opens, scan it for promo codes or other web-only discounts. Search on the airline sites the same way you searched on the booking sites, with date flexibility. There’s a decent possibility of finding the fare lower here, or of finding options not listed on the booking site.
Most airline sites have quite decent calendars to show higher or lower fares on each side of your travel date. Most will show one-way fares, which is fine as long as you remember that your return fare (even if the same day of the week) may be dramatically different than your arrival fare. Most offer steep discounts if you travel for less than a week or more than 8 days with low fares on Tuesdays and Sundays, for instance. Usually, traveling to your destination on a Tuesday is the cheapest day of the week, but they’ll ding you on the way back, so plan to fly home again on a different day of the week. For an example, let’s return to my trip to Cancun: I planned to travel Tuesday to Tuesday, but fares were almost double to return on that day, so we opted for Sunday to Sunday…with a slightly more expensive arrival fare, but significantly lower return fare. Remember, we shopped this while our dates were still flexible.
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