Low-cost carriers like JetBlue, Song, Southwest, and Ted have earned a reputation as affordable alternatives to the major airlines. But just because an airline bills itself as low-cost, that doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to travel on the cheap simply by choosing a smaller carrier. You’ll still need to follow a few basic rules in order to find the lowest fares.
We spoke with representatives from some of the most popular low-fare airlines, scoured the fine print on their websites, and compiled our tips for finding the most affordable flights. Here are the results.
- The dates you choose to travel have a big impact on the price you’ll end up paying. Airlines often advise traveling midweek during the off-peak season. Gareth Edmondson-Jones, a JetBlue representative, suggests traveling on Tuesdays and Thursdays whenever possible. “Be flexible with dates. Midweek, it’s easier to snag lower fares,” he says. It is sometimes possible to find low fares on Saturdays, but Fridays and Sundays are the biggest travel days, so low fares are scarce during the weekend. Another option is to travel in the early morning or late evening, when fares are often lower.
- With Delta’s low-cost offshoot, Song, the earlier you purchase a ticket, the less you’re going to pay. Most airlines have an advance-purchase requirement that varies by sale, usually requiring passengers to purchase tickets three, seven, 14, or even 21 days before flying. That doesn’t mean, however, that the cheapest tickets will be available 14 days before you fly, as flights have a limited number of the cheap seats—and when they sell out, only the higher fares will be available. To ensure you find the best fares, book as far ahead as possible. (Or, take a chance on last-minute availability and scour our database for sale fares.)
- Low-fare heavyweight Southwest has made a name for itself with affordable prices and flexible rules. And, while the airline does offer unrestricted, fully refundable fares with a cap of $299 one-way, it’s important to look closely at the restrictions to avoid paying more than you need to. You can often get a cheaper fare with a restricted ticket. If your travel itinerary is unlikely to change, it’s worth booking a restricted fare to save money—sometimes hundreds of dollars.
In short, don’t rely on a low-cost carrier’s reputation alone to find the best price. And, be sure to shop around with services such as SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool after you’ve found a low fare. The reason? Often times, the larger airlines will match their smaller counterparts on competing routes and times. Examples of this are American matching JetBlue out of its JFK hub and America West lowering its fares to compete with Southwest. And for travelers, this means not just low fares, but also flexibility and a better chance of earning miles on the airline you most want to fly.