Travel Planning 101: How to Get the Best Deal on Airfare…Every Time

You may have noticed over the last few months that my travels have been limited to locations within Florida. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and thanks to family visits, holidays, and offerings like the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival, it’s been a fun few months. The reason for this self-imposed travel hiatus? I’ve been saving my pennies for two big trips, the first of which begins in just under a month!

Farragut State Park 2012
I’ll be in Washington and Victoria, B.C. in April…
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…and France and Italy in May.

Since I’ve been cooped up for a while, scanning for airfare deals and hotel flash sales from my desk, I thought I’d share some of my favorite tips and tools for planning your next vacation. I could go on and on about my favorite hotel, tour and airfare sites, but in the interest of keeping this post short and easy to read, I’ll be splitting these up into separate posts. Today I’ll be focusing on how to find the best airfare deals. For most people, airfare takes up a huge chunk of the travel budget, and it is often the first thing people book when planning a trip.

My number one tip is simply to be flexible. I realize this may not be entirely possible for those with limited vacation time, family obligations or other limiting circumstances, however, the best way to score travel deals is to keep your options open. Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.

Today I’m going to tell you about two of my favorite sites for booking the lowest airfare possible, and the ways they help me to save a ton over the competition.

Kayak

Kayak, a subsidiary of Priceline, combines the power of Priceline, Booking.com, and more to scan for the lowest airfares across the web. Their search engine is easy to use, and offers plenty of filters to single out the perfect flight for your needs. Flight length, class, airline, airplane model, price, number of stops, and even amenities like wifi can all be tweaked to perfection. Best of all, Kayak compares pricing patterns over the last seven days and offers their recommendation on whether or not to buy now, or wait for prices to fall.

Example of Kayak Flight Scanner

The example above shows a simple search for one adult fare from Orlando to Seattle, from April 1 to April 8. No filters have been applied in this case, but many are available, for those with specific flight requirements. The chart in the upper left corner shows the rise and fall of airfare for the chosen travel dates, along with a recommendation to buy now or wait.

If your travel dates are flexible, consider modifying your search to show fares for three days before and/or after your chosen dates.

Kayak Flexible Dates Scanner

When using Kayak, this is the number one way I find the best airfare deal. My original travel dates, April 1 to April 8, showed me the lowest available fare of $350. It’s always worth checking to see if there are better deals on similar dates. In this case, I could save  $79 by choosing to travel from March 31 to April 7 instead. My trip length remains the same, but by flying out one day earlier, I can save some money and use it toward meals, sightseeing and accommodation in Seattle instead.

Now for my favorite thing about Kayak: the Explore tool. This is perfect for those moments when you just want to get up and go. It doesn’t matter where. Instead of searching for airfare to one specific destination, this search tool takes into account your desired travel period and budget, and tells you exactly where you can afford to go. Not sure where to go for spring break? Just enter your travel wishes into the search engine, and get booking!

Kayak Explore Tool Example

Here is a sample search. With two big trips already in the works, I’m on a tight budget for a while. I entered my home airport in Orlando, and limited my search to include round trip flights of $150 or less…which pretty much limits me to locations within the continental U.S. Immediately, several locations pop up, including a spring jaunt to Puerto Rico! Not bad.

greetings-from-puerto-rico-pr-postcard
Source

The one thing I dislike about Kayak is that it allows me to search for airfare within a few days of my desired travel dates, or it allows me to search the world via the Explore tool. As far as I know, there is no way to have it all in one simple search.

Enter Skyscanner.

Skyscanner is another airfare comparison site. It works in all the same ways as Kayak’s basic search tools, and even shows me the same $350 flight to Seattle through Frontier Airlines. The key difference, however, is that I can search for low airfare to a specific destination, or find out how far my budget can take me, all from the same easy-to-use toolbar.

Skyscanner Everywhere Search Tool

I mean, just look at that. Who could resist a flight search to “everywhere?” I can search for specific travel dates, browse within a specific month, or take the guesswork out of it entirely and just let Skyscanner tell the cheapest month to book airfare. That weeklong trip to Seattle? Turns out I can go for as low as $244 if I search dates throughout the entire month of April.

SkyScanner Sample Search by Month

That’s over $100 in savings over my original fare of $350! It pays to be flexible.

Meanwhile, if I’m just looking to get away…any time, any place…a quick search to “everywhere” during the “cheapest month” shows me all my options, conveniently grouped by country and then by city.

Skyscanner Sample Search to Everywhere, Cheapest Month

It turns out, $150 could get me pretty far if I know where to look! Of course, being flexible with my travel dates is a huge plus.

Before booking, no matter what search engine I use, I always check for airline discounts and coupon codes online, and take into account any travel rewards programs I’m enrolled in. I am a member of the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, for example, and would ideally choose a slightly more expensive Southwest flight over a lower-cost competitor flight. Key word “slightly.” When booking my upcoming trip to Seattle, however, Southwest was significantly more expensive than a budget flight with Frontier Airlines, and a coupon code for 15% off all spring airfare through Frontier convinced me to give the no-frills carrier a shot.

Tulip Festival Forced Perspective
Thanks to flight comparisons and coupon codes, I’ll be back here next month!

These are my two preferred airfare search engines, and I’ve had good luck booking domestic flights to California, Utah, Washington and more thanks to their variety of search tools. Of course, new airfare booking sites and apps pop up all the time, so I’d love to hear all about your favorite booking tools!

I’ll leave you with a few more tips for booking the best, lowest fare possible.

  1. Check fares early! Many sites, Kayak and Skyscanner included, have the option of creating a price alert, so you can book that ticket as soon as the price drops.
  2. Fly on weekdays. It’s not just an urban legend. When booking a trip, most people prefer to fly on the weekends, minimizing the time away from work or school, and major travel holidays such as Labor Day tend to fall on the weekend. Avoid a crowded, overpriced flight, and book instead on a weekday. Research (and my own experience) shows that the cheapest days to fly are Tuesday and Wednesday, though this may vary by airline.
  3. Everyone knows to avoid flying on or around the holidays whenever possible. Major holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving are a given here in the States, but don’t forget to research the holidays and goings-on in your chosen destination! Think of events like the World Cup and Olympics, and consider national holidays and celebrations to avoid getting overcharged for airfare.
  4. Comparison shop! You do it for cars, homes, and even groceries, so why wouldn’t you shop around for the best airfare? Comparison sites like Kayak and Skyscanner do a lot of the legwork for you, but I always recommend searching directly through your preferred airline’s website for additional savings or loyalty benefits.
  5. Don’t be afraid to use coupons! I google promo codes on literally every single thing I buy online. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For example, a quick search of “Frontier Promo Code” gave me a 15% savings on a recent booking. It’s worth taking the extra minute to see just how much you could save.

All search images are screenshotted from Kayak or Skyscanner. I am in no way affiliated with either company and am not being compensated for this post. I just highly recommend both services, and have benefited from using them on several occasions. Go check them out; you’ll see what I mean!



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