How to Save Money Using Flexible Fare Search

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) full-fare advertising rules, part of a larger series of passenger protections that went into effect last month, brought forth some progressive changes for flyers. The kicker: Airlines must now include mandatory taxes and fees when advertising airfares. But as usually happens with big-scale change, some adverse repercussions have come about. Spirit hemmed and hawed and accused the government of deluding travelers, and, more importantly for consumers, some online travel agencies altered their flexible fare search options.

Orbitz (which offered a 30-day flexible-search window) and Travelocity (which offered a large 330-day window) reduced the time span of their flexible searches after the DOT rules kicked in. Now both sites only offer flexible fare searches for three days before and three days after specified travel dates. (You can still find Orbitz's old search page if you know where to look. More on that below.)

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The sites' old flexible search capabilities were fantastic for flyers but not so convenient for the businesses themselves; these sites probably had trouble calculating fare prices over broader spans of time after the DOT's rules took effect.

So is it still possible to leverage flexible fare searches? Indeed. A SmarterTravel.com editor recently saved about $200 on an upcoming trip to Edinburgh—by extending her vacation. After running a flexible fare search on Kayak, she discovered that a flight leaving two days earlier than her original departure date was $90 cheaper each way. Her hotel stay was footed by the family (a Christmas gift), so she pushed her departure date back and pocketed $180.  

One of the best ways to save a nice chunk of money on your flight is to be flexible with your travel dates. The airlines adjust fares based, in part, on competition for seats, leaving room for significant day-by-day price disparities. It's not uncommon to see fares for the same routes vary by hundreds of dollars, depending on which day you fly, and this isn't necessarily caused by the airlines' standard weekend markups. We saw fares from New York to Dublin on Aer Lingus that drop by almost $200 from one Monday to the next: $361 for departure on March 12, versus $555 for departure on March 19.

Easy money? It depends. Travelers are often at the mercy of circumstance, whether it's hard-bargained vacation days or a carefully planned trip over the kids' spring break. "Most people don't have a lot of flexibility when they travel," George Hobica, editor of Airfarewatchdog, told us. "They have to go to a wedding, to a funeral, on a cruise. But there are millions who just want to travel whenever it's cheap. If you don't have the money to be inflexible, you should do a flexible search," said Hobica. (Airfarewatchdog also offers an overview of flexible search for travelers.)

Even if you're tethered to set travel dates, it's probably worth running a flexible fare search just to see how much you might save. If the price is right, you could find yourself finagling a little wiggle room.

There are plenty of places to investigate available flex fares, from online travel agencies (OTAs) to fare aggregators (such as TripAdvisor Flights or Kayak) to airline websites. When buying a ticket, it's a good idea to search on as many sites as possible. But for starters, try your query in the following places, which we hand-picked as the best sites on which to run a flexible fare search. 

Best Online Travel Agency: Hotwire

In the flex-fare OTA face-off, our top picks came down to Orbitz and Hotwire, both of which allow flyers to search for fares in a 30-day window. But Orbitz lost big points for obscurity. Airfarewatchdog reports that Orbitz hid its flexible-fare search page from some users after the Department of Transportation's fee-inclusive advertising rules went into effect. You can find the link here, but you won't come across this page browsing the Orbitz website.

Hotwire, however, offers a clear path to fare flexibility. Simply click the "Flexible Date Search" link in the Hot Rate Locater box on the site's home page, and you'll have the option to search based on your desired trip length (such as two-to-four nights or three-to-five nights) within that 30-day window.

Why didn't the other major OTAs make the cut? Travelocity and Priceline offer weak three-day flexible search options, while Expedia's flexible search is for "popular routes only" (major U.S. city to major U.S. city).

Most Impressive Date Range: Cheapair.com

A generous 330-day search window makes Cheapair.com the place to go when your travel calendar is as wide as a first-class plane seat. Enter your departure and destination cities, and the site turns up a list of the lowest ticket prices available, along with applicable travel dates for each fare. However, this site only fishes for flights in North America. (Across-the-pond and other international tickets are excluded.)

Best Fare Aggregator/Search Engine: It's a Toss Up

ITA Software is a Google-owned fare meta-search tool that powers a number of aggregators and OTAs, from Kayak to Orbitz. Consider it the mother of fare aggregators. Use its Matrix Airfare page to find low fares over a 30-day period. You'll see a rate calendar that features the lowest available fares for each day in the month, as well as list of airlines with relevant offerings alongside corresponding prices. You can't actually buy fares on this site, but it's a useful place to fish for reasonably-priced plane tickets. 

TripAdvisor Flights and Kayak are also top contenders, with comparable full-month rate calendars for international and U.S. flights. (Both get their data from ITA Software.) It's important to note that fare aggregators, including ITA Software, don't cover all the airlines. For example, none of the aggregators crawl fares from discount airlines Southwest and Spirit. So let's take a look at the airline websites. ...

Best International Airline: Aer Lingus

You'll find a three-day flexible fare search on most international airline websites. Handy? Sure. But some airlines do you one—or 11—better. Our top pick? Aer Lingus, which displays a two-week date range when you employ the flexible-dates search option.

A side note: American offers a useful rate calendar that lets fliers view fares for six days before and six days after date of departure; yet this function has one huge flaw.

Best U.S. Airline: Southwest

No. We're not funded by Southwest. But we do like its fare calendar. Use it to dig up the lowest prices in any given month—and you can even toggle between months to get an idea of fare costs over a larger timescale. Granted, Southwest fares don't vary too much day-to-day. You'll see the biggest discrepancies between low on-sale fares and high last-minute departures.

JetBlue came in a close second, so we'll offer it a nod as well. With every search, the airline displays a fare calendar that permits passengers to peer at prices for departures 10 days before and after the searched travel date. 

Where do you go to find cheap flexible fares?

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