How to Buy Cheap Airline Tickets

How to Buy Cheap Airline Tickets

The cost of flying is going up — fees for luggage, snacks, and higher costs of the tickets themselves mean your air-travel has never been more expensive. Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1990, you know that there are venues online for purchasing cheap plane tickets. The problem is there’s so many websites offering “discount airline tickets”, it can be difficult to know whether the price you’re quoted is the best. Knowing how to buy cheap airline tickets can mean a difference in hundreds of dollars on your next flight.

Where Do Cheap Airline Tickets Come From?

If you go to the supermarket, every Granny Smith apple will cost the same as the next. You choose based on which looks good, but you pay the same price regardless of your choice. Buying airline tickets directly from the airline is kind of like this — you can pay cheaper fares if you buy your tickets months in advance, but once you get within a week or two of your trip, the price skyrockets and everyone pays the same rate. If you know how to buy cheap airline tickets, you know that buying tickets directly from the airline is not usually the best way to get a good deal.

How to Buy Cheap Airline TicketsCheap airline tickets exist because the pricing system for plane tickets is really complicated. The three factors that determine the price of a plane ticket are competition, demand, and inventory. The airlines themselves refer to their practice of changing ticket costs “yield management”, but it is really just good old supply and demand economics.

Airlines work with four “central reservation systems” to set their fares. FYI, the names of these systems are Apollo, Sabre, WorldSpan and Galileo. Since all airlines can see the information about other airlines using these central systems, they can raise and lower their fare cost to try and compete for business. That means airlines are constantly changing their fare prices based on customer demand.

For example — if a flight from Boston to New York is selling well and the seats are filling up, the price will increase. On the other hand, if a flight from Houston to Dallas isn’t selling well, that fare will go down and down until the airline starts to sell some tickets and can then raise the price. Basically, fares are changing minute by minute.

Cheap airline ticket vendors use the same central reservation systems that the airlines use and try to “undercut” the airline itself by selling large amounts of slightly cheaper tickets.

How to Buy Cheap Airline Tickets

Here’s some tips for buying cheap airline tickets — some may work for you and others won’t. If you use a few of these tactics in combination with each other, you’re sure to find the flight you need at a price you can afford.

  • Book your flight as early as possible. Yes, better rates may come along in the interim, but starting out with a low fare may be the best way to fly on a budget. There are also lots of “deals” you can get directly from airlines or cheap airline ticket sellers that require you to make a reservation three weeks in advance. If you don’t have three weeks to plan your trip, you can take advantage of last minute deals, but these fares are pretty much inflexible, meaning no refund if you change your travel plans.
  • Be vague about your travel dates. When you talk to an airline, ask them what their lowest fare is regardless of the date of travel. If they think your dates are flexible, they will tell you the lowest price and you can schedule your trip around the cheap ticket. Here’s a hint — the cheapest airline tickets can be found during the winter time for the most part, with the biggest exceptions being Thanksgiving and Christmas. The idea here is to be extra vague about your itinerary and arrange your flight during the airline’s “off season”.
  • Use your age to your advantage. Many airlines have senior citizen discounts, special student rates, and the like. There are programs that help you find age-discounted fares, the most popular being Student Advantage or AARP. Though you won’t always get a break on the price due to your age, it won’t hurt to try.
  • Stick with one airline. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you use two different airlines for the same trip you almost always pay more. Even if it seems cheaper to take one leg on a certain airline and a different airline for the return leg, your fees and other expenses will more than make up for the insignificant fare differences. All round trip airline tickets are about the same as the cost of two one-way tickets, so it just doesn’t make sense to try and save money by switching airlines mid-trip.
  • Don’t give up on a flight if it looks expensive. Keep checking the fare price as the days pass, because airlines start to discount fares if a flight is selling poorly. A flight that you thought was too expensive could be super cheap within a couple days just so the airline can put butts in the seats. If you have the luxury of waiting a couple of days to buy a ticket, keep your eyes out for suddenly discounted fares.
  • Use “alternate airports”. Sometimes there are airports within a decent drive of your chosen destination’s major airport. These secondary airports outside the big city or in less popular areas are great sources for cheap airline tickets. Years ago I saved hundreds of dollars by flying into Baton Rouge, Louisiana and catching a shuttle into New Orleans for a college Mardi Gras trip. Other common “secondary” airports are Love Field in Dallas and the Oakland airport which is nearly close enough to walk to San Francisco.

Just because the airline wants to sell a seat on a flight for $500 doesn’t mean you have to spend that much. There’s so much leverage in the cost of an airline flight you’d be a fool to buy an airline ticket without shopping around. If you could see the variation in price paid per ticket on a single flight, you’d be astounded to find that there are hundreds of dollars’ difference from one seat to the next. Same peanuts, same crappy movies, different prices.

Now that you know how to buy cheap airline tickets, its time to get your passport updated and take that worldwide vacation you’ve always dreamed of.

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