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Airfare 101, Part 1: Go Back to Basics to Find the Lowest Price

by , SmarterTravel Staff - September 11, 2008

Although hundreds of thousands of travelers fly every day, finding the lowest fares is difficult, if not impossible, for many people. With this first installment of our Airfare 101 series, we're going back to basics to show you money-saving strategies that ensure you'll get the best flight at the right price for your budget every time.

Lesson #1: Check Your Calendar

To get the lowest fares, purchase your tickets at least seven, 14, or 21 days in advance. Waiting until the last minute to purchase is like playing roulette—sometimes you'll get lucky, but more often than not, you won't.

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The days of the week you choose to depart and return make a difference in overall price as well. Historically, Fridays and Sundays are the busiest days of the week to travel, which also makes them the most expensive. In general, you can find lower fares by traveling midweek, on Mondays through Thursdays. If you must travel on the weekends, Saturdays are generally the most affordable option.

Although some airlines did away with Saturday-night stay requirements in the recent past, those requirements are steadily coming back. Including a Saturday night in your itinerary will often lead to the lowest fares, particularly on the major airlines. The fine print of most sales will usually spell out minimum- and maximum-stay requirements.

The season also makes a big difference in the price you'll pay for airfare. Avoid traveling during a destination's high season, and instead take advantage of off-peak or shoulder-season reduced prices. For example, flying to Florida in the summer will be cheaper than in winter. If you must fly during a busy period such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, you'll usually find the best prices by traveling on the holiday itself rather than the days surrounding the holiday.

Lesson #2: Be Flexible

To secure the lowest fares on any round-trip route, space must be available on both the departure and return flights. If it isn't available in both directions, one leg of the trip can increase the price of the entire itinerary. It's worth experimenting with travel dates and even times until you find the lowest fare. Often, traveling a day or two before or after your original dates will make a big difference in the price you'll end up paying.

Most major travel websites and nearly all airlines allow travelers to look for fares using flexible searches. Travelocity allows travelers to search by any date period on many domestic routes, while Expedia's technology allows users to search by month on the site's most popular routes. Orbitz offers the option of searching one day before or after your original travel dates, and its "Flex Search" tool allows you to search by weekend travel, bonus days, and flexible stays.

Flexibility can extend to your arrival and departure airports as well. Many cities have several airports, and flying into a secondary airport could save you money. When booking airfare, experiment with different airports. If you're flying to London, check both Heathrow and Gatwick to see if flying into one is cheaper than the other. If you're departing from Boston, consider flying from Providence, Manchester, or Hartford instead—you might find a cheaper fare. Many smaller airports are home to low-cost carriers that offer lower prices than major airlines.

Lesson #3: Compare Fares

The first fare you see isn't necessarily going to be the lowest. That's why it's critical to compare fares before purchasing.

An easy way to compare fares from the airlines' websites (both major airlines and low-cost carriers) and third-party carriers like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, is to use our price-comparison tool. It allows users to enter cities and dates once, and compare the fares from several dozen websites, including all of the major airlines and low-cost carriers.

If you find a fare you like on one of the third-party sites, go to the airline's site to see if it's also available directly from the airline. Most third-party sites charge a booking fee of $5 to $10, so it's cheaper to book directly with the airline.

Remember low-fare carrier Southwest does not list its prices on third-party sites. Since Southwest may offer the lowest prices available, you should check its website before booking with another airline.

Lesson #4: Beware of New Fees

These days, calculating the total price for airfare can be difficult. The major and low-fare airlines have increasingly added new fees for everything from checking a bag to reserving a seat in advance. Therefore, simply popping an itinerary into a flexible-search engine and booking the cheapest fare will no longer work, because not every airline charges the same fees for the same services.

SmarterTravel.com's Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees is a handy reference that will help you add in the appropriate fees for the airlines you're considering.

(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)

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