For many travelers, finding the best fare is more important than adhering to the best schedule or even traveling on any fixed dates. In those cases, travelers look first for the low fares, then decide when to travel. Several online agency and airline websites can help in this process, but the options shrink for overseas trips. As one reader recently asked:
“In the past, I’ve found some great fares to Europe using the “search flexible dates” option on sites such as Travelocity. But those sites have since limited their flexible-dates option to trips within the U.S. and Canada. Do you know any that still offer flexible-dates searches for Europe?”
The short answer is “Yes, a few,” but they fall short of what you can find for domestic travel. Here’s my take on what remains a fast-moving field.
Among the online travel agencies I checked, CheapTickets and Orbitz provide the best flexible-date options for Europe. One option lets you specify the length of your preferred trip, and the site displays the best deals available within a 30-day range. You can also enter your travel dates and request deals up to plus-or-minus three days on origin, return, or both flights. Additionally, Orbitz has a “weekends” search that checks prices for weekend flights in a given month.
Lessno also allows for multi-airline flexible-date searches. When I checked, however, I noted what appeared to be a strong bias toward Northwest, even when some other sites provided lower fares and/or better schedules on other lines.
Flexible searches are also available to some extent on Kayak. Its search engine will check fares up to three days before and after your preferred travel dates. Priceline‘s flexible-dates tool is more limited, and searches one day before or after a given date. Meanwhile, Hotwire will search fares over a 30-day range (click on “Flexible Date Search”).
Many individual airline sites provide more useful flexible-search options than the agency sites.
American seems to have the most useful option. It’s very much like CheapTickets’ system: You can enter a trip length (in days) and a date range up to 31 days, and the site returns calendar displays of dates for which the lowest fare is available. If that doesn’t work, you can revise the display for a higher fare value. And it seems to work for Europe as well as domestic trips.
Quite a few other airlines offer a different system: When you check “flexible,” the site displays a matrix of five to seven departure and return dates, centered on your preferred dates, with fares cited for each cell in the matrix. Among U.S.-based lines, the matrix is seven days on Continental, Delta, Northwest, and US Airways; and five days on United. On most lines, you can move the matrix either earlier or later. These, too, work for Europe.
Many foreign-based lines employ a similar system, including Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic. Air France displays a 14-day matrix; the other lines show a week.
Although our reader’s question was about flights to Europe, I also spot-checked a few transpacific lines: Qantas and Singapore use the seven-day matrix system on flexible fare searches.
If your date range is longer than 31 days, you have to do a little more work.
- You can, of course, start out on one of the airline sites and keep moving the seven-day matrix or the 31-day travel window until you see something you want.
- For some of the busiest routes, you can sign up for a fare-notification system that notifies you when the fare drops below a level you specify.
- You can access a fare-alert bulletin system, such as SmarterTravel.com’s Deals at a Glance, which displays current fare sales and with their associated purchase cutoff dates, and you can sign up for SmarterTravel’s Deal Alert newsletter. Although these sources may not list the specific route you want to fly, they do identify airlines offering sales and promotions. And you can figure that if Air France, for example, lists a special fare from New York to Paris, other routes are probably also on sale.
Until recently, Farecast, the fare-prediction website, covered only the more popular domestic routes, but it has expanded to include cities in Canada as well. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the site starts adding more international routes.
(Editor’s Note: BookingBuddy and SmarterTravel.com are members of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)