Getting the most for your airfare dollar is a challenge, particularly if you are new to buying airfare. However, it’s not impossible if you learn a few basic rules about how airline pricing works and know a few tricks for finding the cheap seats. We’ve put together a list of 10 tips and search strategies that you can use to get lower fares anytime.
Get airfare savvy
Advertisements touting “Europe for $99” or “Domestic travel for $39” may grab your attention, but are they really good deals? Before you can judge the quality of a deal and accurately compare it to other fares, you’ll have to get beyond the low number and figure out what the total cost really is. Here’s what to look for:
- One-way or round-trip travel: Many times advertisers will draw consumers in by listing the one-way fares rather than the round-trip price. However, if you’re like most air travelers, you’ll be flying round-trip, and so will need to double that price.
- Taxes and fees: Most advertised fares do not include taxes and fees, and you’ll probably have to go through the booking process online or call the provider to find out exactly what the charges will amount to. For domestic flights, taxes and fees can add up to $40. Bear in mind, however, that most listed student fares already include a 7.5 percent federal excise tax, whereas listed any-person fares may not add in these charges until later. For international flights on both student and any-person fares, expect charges ranging from $85 to $125. For a more detailed breakdown of how and why these taxes are applied, read our tip on airfare taxes and fees.
- Membership costs and service fees: If you are using a travel agent or are purchasing a special student fare, chances are some type of fee will be charged or you’ll have to purchase a membership card to a student discount organization. For example, StudentUniverse adds a $5 fee to all its fares, and in order to purchase student fares from Travel CUTS or STA, you’ll need an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which costs $22.
- Paper tickets: Unless an airline lacks the capability to sell e-tickets, you will be charged a hefty surcharge for requesting a paper ticket. For instance, we researched the surcharges for purchasing a paper ticket on Orbitz for a US Airways flight and found that US Airways charged $50 for the paper ticket, and Orbitz tacked on a $15 processing fee for shipping and handling.
Where to look
Now that you’re aware of how to properly assess the cost of a fare, you can comparison shop with confidence. Grab a pen and paper to make note of how the fares stack up against each other:
Start with student fares: As a student, you’re lucky to have access to these exclusive fares, which are often the cheapest option. Also, student fares tend to have more flexible restrictions than any-person fares, such as the ability to book at the last minute and longer maximum stays. Compare fares from student travel agents such as StudentUniverse, Travel CUTS, and STA.
Compare the any-person fares: It’s vital that you compare student fares to the available any-person fares because student fares can sometimes be beaten. Use SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool to quickly search fares on the big airfare sites like Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and Hotwire. Note that the big sites include all taxes and fees up-front.
However, most low-cost airlines do not sell their fares through the big airfare websites, so you’ll need to check their sites individually. While these smaller lines offer fewer routes and departures than the big carriers, they often deliver lower prices and better service on the routes they do serve. A few budget airlines to check out include AirTran, ATA, JetBlue, Song, and Southwest.
- Check for sales from individual airlines: The fares found on sites such as Expedia and Orbitz don’t always reflect special sales offered by individual airlines. To find these sales easily, use other SmarterTravel.com resources to search for air deals or last-minute fares from your home airport.
Tips for getting lower fares
There are a few basic strategies you can employ to increase your chances of finding lower fares:
- Fly from an alternate airport: Budget carriers can charge less for airfare because they often use smaller, less popular airports. You’ll be better able to take advantage of low-cost carrier fares if you’re willing to fly from one of these airports. For example, if you live near San Francisco, rather than flying from San Francisco International, consider the nearby Oakland International where you get flights on JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit.
Fly off-peak: If you fly during less popular times, you’ll find lower prices. This means flying midweek rather than on weekends, and avoiding holiday travel if possible. If you have to fly during the holidays (i.e., going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas), remember to book early before all the seats fill up. Websites such as Orbitz have tools that allow you to search for the cheapest any-person fares over a range of days, and student travel agents can help you pinpoint the cheapest days to fly on student tickets.
Also, you’ll pay much less if you fly to a destination during its low season. For example, fares for summer travel to Europe are often double the cost of fares for winter travel.
- Book ahead: While you can get lucky with last-minute fares, you’ll have more low-fare options if you book in advance. Many airlines offer reduced fares when you book 14 or more days ahead of time.
While all this shopping around may make you a bit dizzy, the time you take to search is well worth the savings that can result. Plus, it’ll give you a good excuse to procrastinate writing that term paper. With a plan in hand, you’re ready to turn travel dreams into a reality.