Few industries utilize price structures as confusing as the airlines. When you purchase a ticket for a bus or train you’ll pay the same rate for almost any day of travel. Maybe you’ll face a slight surcharge for a last-minute trip. But when it comes to airfare, rates change daily, and usually without notice.
Many factors influence the cost of airline tickets, including when and where you book, and when and where you travel. Plus, you’ll still face a myriad of hidden travel fees for items and services like checking bags and changing your reservation.
Though the nature of airfare can be complicated, figuring out some of the reasons behind the costs and fluctuations isn’t impossible. Understanding these key factors will help you save money when you travel.
If you’re baffled by skyrocketing rates and not quite accustomed to all the options available to you, start with these steps.
1. Weigh Nonstop vs. Multi-Stop Flights
An obvious advantage of planes as opposed to trains, buses, and cars is the speed of travel. You want to get to your destination as quickly as possible, so when you fly, you should always first consider a nonstop flight.
Before you jump at a fare that’s $20 cheaper with a short layover, consider how valuable your time is, and don’t forget the scheduling risks associated with a stop. In addition to the time you spend landing, waiting, and taking off again, you’re likely to end up spending a few dollars while you’re anxiously awaiting your next flight.
Worse, when you have a stopover you run the risk of missing your connection, leading to more lost time (and probably more spending at the gate). If you have the time to spare, and the discipline to keep your wallet in check, you might be able to save by taking on a stop. But if you’re like most travelers, trying to spend as much time at your destination and as little time in transit, the premium price for a nonstop ticket may be worth it.
2. Consider All Carriers
If your natural inclination is to use a mass-airline search engine, such as Expedia, Travelocity, CheapOair, or Kayak, remember that you’re not really looking at every airline. Carriers like Southwest, for example, restrict their fares from showing on these services. They only sell their tickets directly through their website.
To find out which airlines serve which cities, start by researching on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page for each airport will show a list of every airline that serves it and all of the nonstop destinations served by each airline.
Once you collect that information, do the following:
- Start with a travel site like Expedia to pinpoint the lowest fares available.
- If airlines on the Wikipedia list don’t show in the results, check with those carriers’ official sites.
- Compare all of the options and then book with the cheapest airfare.
If you end up needing to book a multi-stop trip, remember that the best overall fare might involve combining airlines. If you’re not checking any bags, you may have more options.
3. Book Through the Carrier
You can find fares through one of those third-party sites, but once you’ve chosen your flight, don’t ignore the possibilities that await on the airline’s page.
I prefer to book my flights directly through the official site, as extra deals and discounts are sometimes available. Most airlines guarantee the lowest fares through their own site, partly because they don’t have to pay additional transaction fees. Travel portals are great for filtering the options and finding the right price and times, but visiting the airline’s official site is always worthwhile.