How to die (er, fly) cheaply

By Steve Barnes 

I hate to fly. In fact, I’m one of those travelers who gets to the airport a couple of hours early not because of security hassles, but so that I have time to hit the Steve airport cartoonairport lounge for a Bloody Mary or two (or three) before take-off. But if there is one thing I hate more than hurtling through the atmosphere in an over-sized tin can propelled by strap-on jet packs, it’s paying too much for the privilege.

Fortunately, finding a decent fare has gotten easier thanks to the internet, but it still requires some knowledge, time and a bit of luck on your part. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sites on the web promising the lowest fares. But can they all be the lowest? Not so much. There are also all-inclusive deals that can sometimes be cheaper than booking flights, hotels and transportation separately, but they generally are tailored to less adventurous travelers who are looking for something a little more upscale than what we consider “budget” travel and who are willing to stay on the well-trodden tourist routes.

Great deals can also be had (sometimes) by getting on the twitter or facebook feeds of various airlines and travel companies or by offering to fly standby, which we will cover in a future story. Both of these options generally require a significant amount of flexibility regarding timing and destinations.

What’s worked best for us when we have a specific destination in mind and a little flexibility in our travel window is to first surf the big-name travel sites like Travelocity, Expedia, Kayak and the like to see what the going rate is for the location and season. For overseas flights, checking about three months in advance (or waiting until the last minute) seems to provide the best deals. 

That said, don’t overlook checking with the airlines directly. We often fly Jet Blue because they consistently have competitive fares (at least to the places we’ve traveled), we have a rewards card that earns us points with them (more on points cards in a future story), and they have one of the largest overhead storage bins (we NEVER check our luggage – if we can’t carry it on the plane, we sure don’t want to lug it around on chicken buses).

Regardless of which service you use, timing is the key to getting the best deals. Think of it the way you might approach buying a stock: In most cases, the underlying value of an investment doesn’t change dramatically from day to day or hour to hour, but the price can fluctuate wildly. Your goal is to buy something valuable at the best possible price.

Like stocks, the cost of flights varies dramatically based on a number of factors: the season, fuel prices, the number of unsold seats and even the day of the week you book your flight (business travelers tend to book more flights during business hours early and late in the week, driving up demand.) We’ve found that the best times to search are generally late on Wednesday or Saturday nights, and doing so can save you hundreds of dollars!

Of course traveling “off-season” can save even more, so if you are willing to visit Alaska in January or Central America during the rainy season (generally April-October) you’ll pay much less than those who prefer not to freeze to death or drown while crossing a flood-ravaged street.

For this trip, we ended up buying our tickets through the Jet Blue website after weeks of looking at price patterns on various sites. Our destination was carved in stone, but we had the luxury of being able to book our flight a week or so on either side of our ideal travel date. That flexibility ended up saving us more than $100 per ticket. (Many airlines and travel companies allow you to see fares for identical flights on different days of the week.) The graphic below is a screen shot from the Jet Blue website. Notice how much fares change from one day to the next for identical flights. A Saturday flight in January from Orlando to San Jose, Costa Rica is $498. The same flight the next morning is $235, a savings of $263. That’ll buy mucho cerveza!  

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Getting the best price on your flight is both an art and a science. We are still learning and would love to hear your tips for getting the best deals. So, if you’ve got a great trick, please leave it in the comment section below. Thanks, and happy travels!

(Note: Unlike some travel bloggers, we never accept discounts or freebies from airlines, hotels or anyone else, so you never have to worry about whether our opinions have been influenced by anything other than our real-life experiences.)

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5 responses to “How to die (er, fly) cheaply

  1. I used the same method when I recently went to CR. The one thing that I noticed on Jet Blue’s site was that if you check a certain date several times in a 24 hour period then the price of the flight went up. So I started putting in a day or two away from the actual day that I wanted to fly and the price for the day I wanted would drop. This may be a coincidence, but it seemed to work several times as I was looking for the best price flight.

  2. Kevin, thanks for the tip. I wondered about that. (I had a similar issue when searching for domain names, but that’s another story!)

  3. Steve,
    I share your goal of flying as cheaply as possible, but like to fly in the pointy end of the plane. Playing the frequent flyer “game” has worked very well for me. I am not often a revenue passenger so I don’t accrue miles that way. My co-branded credit card (Citi Bank & American Airlines) accounts for a lot of miles. While I do pay an annual membership fee of $50, with proper discipline, I get a lot of miles that way, enough to more than justify the $50 each year.

  4. Thanks Vic. We also use a branded card; Jet Blue/AMEX. We just got it for this trip and earned enough points for a free round-trip to Central America or two in the states! As part of their promo, there is no fee for the first year. We will see how it goes and may apply for a different card next year if we find a better promo!

    • I too have an AMEX (AA) and have had it several years. Each year when the annual membership fee is due, I call them and threaten to cancel it. Then they transfer me to a “retention specialist”. When asked for a reason for wanting to cancel, I say something like “I’m not sure I am using it enough to justify the $95 annual fee.” The retention specialist usually makes me an offer to keep it for another year. Typically, If I will make ___ purchases within 3 months, they will waive the fee for the next year. Next year, I repeat the process with the same result.

      On a related subject, credit card churning has really produced a lot of miles for us.

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