Cheapest airline tickets: 5 tips for finding them

I have shared how I find the cheapest airline tickets I can before any trip. But there are some other tricks that I have used before, as well.

So, here are some five more tips on getting the best deal on a plane ticket:

1. Check out smaller carriers. Some smaller airlines may not show up in your ITA Matrix search, so do your research and find out what smaller carriers may fly out of your region. Then check those airline Web sites and compare to what you find on the ITA Matrix. I cannot vouch for all of the smaller or regional airlines, but one that I fly all the time myself is Allegiant. I fly to some very specific areas every few weeks for my full-time job in another industry, and Allegiant is the absolute cheapest way to get to those places 90 percent of the time. But there are trade-offs: The flight schedules are very limited, and I often have to fly out of a smaller airport in Orlando that is about 30 minutes further away from my house.

2. Speaking of those alternate airports, you can often save big on a plane ticket by flying out of them. Many airline search engines allow you to search airports nearby, as well as the one you are looking for. You should give that search a try. If you are headed to Sarasota, Florida, for example, you can often save $100 or so per ticket by flying to Tampa, Florida, instead and driving an extra hour.

3. Be flexible on your dates, if you can. Speaking as a mom who has flown home for one day to take my child to the first day of school and then headed back out again that afternoon, I know that me telling you to be flexible on the days will not always work when real life gets in the way. But if you can be flexible, at least give it a try. Think about Las Vegas. When does everyone want to head home from a trip to Vegas? On Sunday. If you plan to depart on a Tuesday, you will usually save. Likewise, if your destination is popular with business travelers, the Friday afternoon and evening flights out will usually be more expensive than those on the weekend.

4. Take extreme measures. To find the cheapest airline tickets, sometimes you have to go to great lengths. By that, I mean in some circumstances it may make sense to travel…to travel. My husband and I were gifted a week at a resort in Barbados for our honeymoon – all we had to do was buy the airfare. When I started searching for that airfare, sticker shock set in. The flights from any airport in Florida to Barbados cost $800 or more each. We had been assuming it would cost $800 for both of us. Thinking we might have to call off the trip, I started randomly searching flights to Barbados from other cities and found that if we left from somewhere other than the Southeast U.S., the flights went down dramatically. We wound up with roundtrip tickets to Barbados from DCA for $189 each, and then roundtrip tickets from Tampa to DCA for $206 each on another airline. We had to spend an extra night in DC both coming and returning to make the flight schedules work, which I scored on Priceline for about $40 each. Even with the hotel each way, and probably an extra meal or two on the road, we saved at least $500. (And one warning on this: It is a risky proposition to do what we did. If delays on one airline cause you to miss your flight on a different airline, you will be charged change fees or have to buy a whole new ticket on the second airline. That’s why we left a whole day on each side between these flights. We would never have tried this if the flights were just a few hours apart.)

5. Be sure you’re figuring the real cost. Sometimes I think it’s easy to focus on the bottom line for the airline ticket and forget about all the rest, but you aren’t saving money if you have to spend more to fly anyway. Be sure to factor in checked luggage, if you’ll need it. If it costs $30 per bag and you’re going to need two bags, that ticket that is $50 more on an airline that allows you to check it for free is actually the cheapest, right? Likewise with using alternate airports: You have to figure in things like parking and your gas and time to be sure you’re actually saving. For me, a ticket that’s $20 cheaper may not be worth it if I have to spend an extra 90 minutes in the car each way, but a ticket that’s $100 cheaper would be. Also, if you’re going to need a rental car for your trip, what airport you fly into can mean a couple hundred dollars difference on the weekly rate for a rental car, so check that first before you buy the plane ticket.  And as in my extreme honeymoon example, I made sure to figure the real savings there before deciding to buy – including extra meals, any extra transportation we may have needed, etc.

As I’ve said before, you sometimes have to put some serious research into getting the cheapest airline tickets. Have you got a tip or trick to share? Please leave it in the comments!

[Image credit: Flickr user Kossy@FINEDAYS]

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