As a travel editor, I’m constantly in the air. Years of trial and error have made me loyal to the airlines that never let me down (Southwest, I luv you), but I’ve also developed a neat little bag of tricks when it comes to finding the cheapest flights possible. You don’t have to be The Points Guy to find the best travel deals (but I do recommend browsing his site for tips.) But before you do that, it helps to understand a little bit about how airline pricing works.
Think of each seat on a plane as a perishable good. Once the plane takes off, an empty seat becomes worthless.
That’s why you can sometimes find screaming deals within 24 hours of takeoff. Prior to that “fire sale” window, airlines are using advanced algorithms of supply and demand to sell every seat at the highest price possible. That means you need to get good at identifying low demand flights and booking them at the right time. There are also some neat tricks you can use with credit cards points, companion passes, and apps made for finding the best deals. Read on for the tried-and-true strategies that never let me down.
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Browse for flights in incognito mode.
Ever notice how the flights you’re browsing seem to go up in price within hours of first looking at them? That’s because airlines have advanced pricing algorithms that take into account things like number of page views from the same user. Okay, they’re pretty smart. But you’re smarter. Switch your browser to incognito mode to keep your quotes as low as possible.
Search flights using sites like Momondo and Skyscanner.
I typically start by searching Momondo and Skycanner for flights when I’m in the research/planning phase of a big trip, especially an international one. These sites allow you to sort all available flights by price, duration, or the very handy “best” category — which divides your average mph by total cost to show you the best value out there. Math for the win!
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Sign up for alerts with Google Flights.
Google Flights is another good search service, although it doesn’t have the nifty sorting features of Momondo and Skyscanner. But what it does have is the option to “track prices” on specific flights, meaning that you’ll receive email updates whenever the price drops. This is a good tool to use if you have a few months lead time for non-flexible travel dates (great for things like weddings and music festivals.)
Avoid flying out on Fridays.
Demand for departure flights is always super high on Fridays, so you’ll find better deals if you’re willing to start your trip on a different day of the week. I’m a big fan of the Thursday-Sunday long weekend trip — especially if I can find direct flights!
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Book flights either 2-3 months out, or at the VERY last minute.
Studies have shown that for domestic flights, 2-3 months in advance is the optimum purchasing time. This is the best window to book flights for pre-planned things like weddings, family vacations, reunions, etc. That said, there are sometimes major deals that happen within 24 hours of takeoff (when airlines are desperate to fill empty seats). That means that those willing to travel more spontaneously are often going to get the best deals around.
Use the Get the Flight Out app.
Speaking of spontaneous trips, that’s what GTFO (Get the Flight Out) is all about. It’s an app that specializes in finding cheap flights within 48 hours of take off. There have been rumors of a British Airways round-trip flight, with a same-day departure, from JFK to Heathrow for $500. LA to Rome for $264. New York to Paris for $258. Last minute girls trip? Um, YES.
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Get the Southwest Companion Pass
In my opinion, the Southwest Companion Pass is one of the best deals out there for frequent travelers on a budget. It’s essentially a two-for-one deal — you designate a companion, and that person flies for free with you on every Southwest flight you take for the rest of the year. It’s a great option for couples and for single people flying frequently with friends. If you and your companion split the cost of each flight, you’re both essentially getting 50% off. Major score. That said, the companion pass isn’t always easy to get… In years past, you had to earn 110,000 qualifying points (or take 100 qualifying one-way flights) in a calendar year to earn the pass. But from now through February 11th, you can earn the Companion Pass simply by opening up a new credit card with Southwest and spending $4,000 with it during the first three months. You can read more about the 2019 Companion Pass (and exactly how to get it) here.
Use a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
I (and almost every other travel bug I know) have this card and love it. It’s one of the most travel-friendly cards on the market, with an excellent points system that’s easy to use. Not only can you browse and book flights easily on the Chase website, you earn double points every time you spend on travel and dining. That means every Friday night dinner, street parking fee, even every Uber ride I take counts double towards my next flight. Getting rewarded for me doing me? Nice.
See you in first class.