Everyone seems to have their own way about it, and to everyone's credit, some of their strategies are probably very useful. I am not here to say that what I propose is better than what you and others have been doing all along (yes, I am). My only wish is to save you a bit of money on the journey to your next adventure. So without further ado, here you are, a comprehensive guide to hacking airfare prices and finding cheaper flights.
You first need to determine your potential departure and arrival airports.
Keep in mind that if for some reason the place you are flying into is unusually expensive, you may be able to fly into a neighboring airport/city/state/country and catch a train or bus to your destination. So make note of possible alternate gateways as well.
Now hop on the Google owned Matrix Airfare Search and enter your search criteria. Repeat for every available combination of departure/arrival airports while documenting the cheapest airlines and their fares.
TIP: When you are looking for airfare use “private browsing mode” on your browser (Chrome: “File>New Incognito Window”, Firefox: “Tools>Start Private Browsing”, Safari: “Safari>Private Browsing”, IE: Switch Browsers). By doing so, you prevent sites from using cookies and tracking your history (which can use to strategically inflate prices).
Ensure that you are not restricting your results by limiting the number of stops allowed, your preferred class, the number of people (conduct your initial research searching for only one ticket), or the dates (if possible give preference to price instead of schedule).
If you are flexible with your travel dates (you should be), then you can use ITA's “see calendar of lowest fares” to help determine which days surrounding your desired travel dates offer the lowest fares.
Lastly, if the flight you are looking for has one or more stops, make note of the airports where the layovers take place. Sometimes eliminating layovers and arranging transportation to those airports (by way of a separate flight or otherwise)can make for dramatically reduced fares. So again, take note.
NOTE: you cannot book airfare directly through ITA Matrix.
At this point you should have a good idea of the cheapest dates to fly (if your travel is flexible), the best (cheapest) departure/arrival airport combinations, the airline(s) with the lowest fare, and the amount of said fare.
Search the airports and dates you have found to be the least expensive, and cross-reference the prices you find here with one another and with ITA Matrix to determine your cheapest airline and price.
If you are receiving mixed results from your queries, and the cheapest airline is not unanimous, then try adding another search engine to the mix (or move ahead and give yourself a little extra work).
Do all your searches agree on one airline as the cheapest? Time to move onto the source.
GO TO THE SOURCE
So you have found what you think is the lowest fare? Great.
Now go to that airline's website and attempt to reproduce the fare using their search engine. You may find the same fare, or (if you get lucky) a lower fare (higher fares are also possible, but common).
TIP: When possible, always book your airfare directly from the airline's website.
You want to book directly through the airline when possible, because should anything go wrong with your ticketing or travel plans you will have only the airline to work with instead of getting the runaround from the airline and whatever third-party you booked through.
While on the airline's website, investigate any specials or deals the currently being offered. Oftentimes these deals are not taken into account by search aggregators, and you may be able to discount your travel even more by taking advantage of these offers.
ONE-WAY VS. ROUNDTRIP
Crazy as it may sound, you can sometimes find cheaper fares by booking two one-way tickets instead of one roundtrip ticket.
You will have the following options to investigate when booking two one way tickets:
- One airline, same departure/arrival airports both ways
- One airline, different departure/arrival airports each way
- Two airlines, same departure/arrival airports both ways
- Two airlines, different departure/arrival airports each way
This takes a bit more work, but putting the extra effort can yield rewarding results. Booking one-way tickets also allows you the flexibility to easily book your return flight out of an airport different from the one you flew into.
Repeat the process of researching and cross-referencing on multiple sites with one-way fares to ensure you are getting the lowest possible fare on your travel.
As noted before, there can be (and often is) more than one way to reach your destination. If you are not flying out of an airline's hub, or you are attempting to reach a smaller airport that can only be flown to regionally, it can be near impossible to find a direct flight.
However, this provides you with more options, and it is usually possible to arrange for a flight to your layover's airport and then find alternate transportation to your destination.
Try searching small regional airlines' websites for fares possibly not displayed by the large airfare aggregator sites. If your final destination is relatively close to the layover airport, check public transportation, train, and bus schedules as there are often fairly options for connecting airports to neighboring cities.
Should you find yourself unconvinced that the fares you have unearthed are in fact the cheapest available, then try using the price indicators on Bing Travel and KAYAK.
When you search for a fare, these sites will also provide you with advice as to whether they believe (based on some algorithm and past prices) the fares to be rising, falling, or remaining level. Using this information they recommend that you either wait to purchase your fare or buy it immediately to avoid raising fares.
However, in the example we see here, the two sites do not always agree: KAYAK says “buy” with 68% confidence and Bing says “wait” with 80% confidence. You can (and always should) take a look at the previous lowest fares and trends yourself to make a final decision (these indicators are only tools, not definitive facts).
HACKING AIRFARE SUMMARY
Never assume that the first “cheapest” fare you find is in fact the best deal, and remember the following to help you in your quest for ever cheaper airfare:
- Travel “off-peak” when possible.
- Use multiple search engines and aggregators in your research.
- Do not rule out the use of alternate airports.
- Check one-way flights and regional airline prices for better fares.
- Take advantage of special offers on airline websites.
Putting in the extra effort when searching for your flight can be the difference (financially) between spending another night at your destination or going on that camel ride.