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How to Find the Lowest Airfare

An airline can fly you between two points nonstop at a lower cost than flying you on two connecting flights, right? Yes. Obviously, then, nonstop fares should be lower than connecting fares, right again? Sorry, not this time. All too often, the lowest fares on any itinerary require you take connecting flights. Keep that in mind when you look at airfare options for your spring and summer travel.

Nobody seriously questions the fact that an airline can fly you between any two points at lower cost nonstop than on connecting flights. Because connecting flights have to land and takeoff an extra time, connections mean more flight crew hours, more time the airplanes are tied up, and more fuel (because of the extra fuel required to approach, land, taxi, and reverse the process). Logically, then, from a cost standpoint, you should pay less for a nonstop.

But neither costs nor logic are the only factors at work in the pricing system. The airlines figure “costs, schmosts;” their customers prefer nonstops and will pay a premium for the greater speed and less hassle. And that’s how it may work out for you this summer.

I checked a few examples to show how this works, all for economy class round trips in mid-July, as quoted by Expedia:

  • Chicago-London. Lowest fare, $1,167, with Montreal connection on Air Canada, 11:25 flight time. Lowest nonstop fare, $1,219, nonstop on United, 8:13 flight time. Travelocity had an even lower price, at $1,002 on Iberia—with a Madrid connection going to London, with a flight time of 11:25, retuning on a 25-hour marathon with connections in Barcelona and Madrid.
  • Phoenix-Philadelphia. Lowest fare, $261, with Cleveland connection on Continental, 7:38 flight time. Lowest nonstop, $545 on United, 4:21 flight time.
  • San Francisco-Washington. Lowest fare, $305, with Denver connection on United, 7:23 flight time. Lowest nonstop, $399 on United, 4:21 flight time.

Connections aren’t always necessary. From New York to London, for example, Expedia showed no fares lower than Delta’s on a nonstop ($900). Travelocity, however, showed a connection through Ottawa at $894.
You might also consider trying an “opaque” outlet—Hotwire or Priceline. Those are online agencies where you commit to a price (Hotwire) or place a nonrefundable “bid” on a ticket (Priceline) before you know the name of the airline or the schedule. Both sites say they’ll get you either a nonstop or just one connection, but I suspect that most of the itineraries are connections.

Currently, Hotwire posts a New York-London round trip for the test dates at $929 (Priceline doesn’t post any prices). One new wrinkle is that Expedia is now offering opaque “Expedia Bargain Fares” on a few routes; Expedia’s opaque deals for my test dates were $891 for New York-London and $1,086 for Chicago-London. That New York fare is really strange, given that it’s lower than the Hotwire fare even though Hotwire and Expedia are sister companies. Go figure.

These examples illustrate some basic rules about finding the lowest airfares:

  • Connecting flights are often less expensive than nonstops, although not always.
  • Relative fare differences range between substantial and trivial. For example, nobody I know traveling between New York and London would take that Ottawa connection to pay just $6 less than on a nonstop. On the other hand, a Cleveland connection cuts the price of a Phoenix-Philadelphia flight by more than half.
  • Connecting flights are always a hassle. They add at least an hour and a half to flight time each way—often much longer—and crawling off one plane, schlepping through a terminal, and going through the pushing and shoving of a second boarding process is no fun. Also, connecting flights increase your odds of misdirected baggage and missed connections.
  • Opaque outlets can sometimes be cheaper, but not always. And the lack of advance knowledge of your schedule is very off-putting.

By now, you’ve figured that there is no single “magic” system to zero in on the lowest airfare. You’ve got to do your homework—lots of it—or get a good travel agent.

How do you find the lowest fares for your travels? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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

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