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Cheap flights 101: A student’s guide to finding affordable fares

Being a college student means more than just tackling new areas of study. It entails all kinds of life lessons, too: how to live independently, how to manage your own budget, and how to travel without mom and dad. How to book cheap airfare is one of the biggest challenges for most travelers, and can be especially trying for those who don’t yet understand how complex this process can be.

To help you get ahead of the curve, we’ve boiled down the essentials of how to get cheap fares and come up with six vital lessons that can help you shop for flights with confidence.

Lesson 1: Know your ticket options

As a full-time student, you have the choice of either booking the same tickets available to anyone, or booking student-only fares. It’s important to look at both fare types whenever you book a flight, because neither type is guaranteed to be cheaper than the other, and the rules for using each fare differ.

Generally speaking, however, student fares are often cheaper for international travel while regular fares tend to be lower for domestic travel. Also, student fares are usually more flexible, allowing you to change your travel dates or cancel your flight for a small fee, and stay in your destination for up to a year before returning. In contrast, the cheapest regular fares are usually nonrefundable and nonchangeable, and require you to return within 30 days. You can get around the 30-day maximum stay rule by booking one-way fares for domestic travel, but you must book return flights for most international trips.

Lesson 2: Know where to buy airfare

There are countless places to buy airfare, but the three main outlets you should consider are student travel agencies, the airlines, and online travel-booking sites. Here’s a look at the major players and how they operate:

  • Student travel agencies: Three well-regarded agencies dedicated to student travel are STA Travel, Travel CUTS, and StudentUniverse. With STA (800-781-4040) and Travel CUTS (800-592-2887), you can research travel and book tickets over the phone, online, or at “brick-and-mortar” locations throughout the U.S. The advantage of these companies is that you can speak directly with travel agents who can advise you of all the options, help you find the lowest fare, and put together complicated trips that might be difficult or impossible to arrange on your own. However, in order to buy student fares through these agencies, you must first buy an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which costs $22 plus shipping. StudentUniverse, on the other hand, is primarily an online travel agency, but an ISIC is not required to book. You must simply be enrolled at a college or university and register online with your school e-mail address, which is used to verify your student status. Keep in mind that all the agencies charge a booking fee of about $5.
  • Airlines: The cheapest regular fares are often sold directly through the airlines’ own websites, where you can access sale fares that might not be available through other providers. The major “legacy” carriers in the U.S., American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways, all offer sales frequently. However, you can often beat the fares from the major carriers on low-cost airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran. The downside to low-cost carriers is that most have more limited flight networks than the major carriers and most offer few or no international flights.
  • Online travel-booking sites: Rather than checking the website of every airline to find the cheapest flight, you can compare fares on multiple airlines at the same time by using an online travel-booking site such as Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity. These sites are good for helping you to set a price benchmark for your itinerary. They also have useful tools that can help you determine the cheapest days to fly. However, these sites do not always have access to the airlines’ cheapest fares, and all add a booking fee to each purchase. Also, fares for two of the most popular low-cost carriers, Southwest and JetBlue, cannot be booked through these sites. iIn that case, it’s helpful to use these sites to get an idea of what’s available and then go to airlines’ websites to book.

Lesson 3: Always shop around

The only way to find the best airfare is to shop around and compare the offerings of multiple providers. Students should consult with one or more of the student-travel agencies to check the prices of student fares and then do an online search of the airline websites and online travel-booking sites to find regular fares. You’ll have to call or visit the website of each student-travel agency, but you can search airline websites and many of the online travel-booking sites all at once using an airfare-shopping tool.

With SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool, you enter your travel information once and then can search the websites of more than 25 airlines, travel-booking sites, and other fare-comparison sites.

Lesson 4: Be flexible

The more flexible you are about when you fly and which airport you use, the better your chances of finding a cheap ticket. When searching for fares, try looking for flights on different dates; sometimes flying even a day earlier or later than your original travel dates can save you a bundle. Also consider searching for fares from alternative airports or smaller secondary airports. For instance, if you live in Washington, D.C., search for fares from the Washington National, Washington Dulles, and Baltimore-Washington airports. Although secondary airports such as Baltimore-Washington may take a bit of schlepping to get to, you’ll often pay less to fly to or from these locations.

Lesson 5: Fly at less popular times

You can find cheaper flights by flying to a destination during a less busy time of the year and less busy times of the day. Popular destinations such as Europe and Australia have distinct high seasons when more travelers visit, and, during these popular times, prices for flights go up to meet the demand. If you can travel to a place when it’s less popular to visit—October through March in Europe, for example—you may be able save 50 percent or more. A travel agent can help you figure out when these off-peak seasons occur or you can check out’s seasonal recommendations for off-peak travel.

Which days of the week you fly and when you choose to travel during the day can also make a difference. Midweek flights Monday through Thursday tend to be cheaper, and red-eye or midday flights can also cost less.

Lesson 6: Book early

A few years ago, when 9/11 disrupted normal travel patterns, it was possible to snag rock-bottom fares at the last minute. However, this is no longer the case. Travel has rebounded and flights on popular routes fill up quickly. Also, as the airlines struggle to cover increasing fuel costs, this expense is passed along to passengers in the form of fuel surcharges, which can add up to $80 or more each way. If you book early, you may be able to lock in a fare with a lower surcharge. Travel agents advise booking as soon as you know your plans, especially for holiday travel, travel over school breaks, and travel to destinations during peak season. For general domestic travel, it’s a good idea to book at least 21 days in advance.

It’s still possible to get decent fares at the last minute, especially if you’re flexible about where and when you fly. If you like traveling on a whim, you can sign up for’s Last-Minute Airfare newsletters, which list soon-to-expire offers from your designated airport.

By mastering these basic lessons, you’ll have a strong base for planning affordable trips over the next four years. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can come back to for more advanced lessons such as how to use [% 6793 | resource | opaque-booking sites %], how to earn free flights with frequent flyer miles, and how to fly standby. Check out articles on these topics and more by visiting our airfare advice page.

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