12 Flight-Booking Hacks to Save You a Ton of Money on Airfare
It's tough to say what's worse when buying a plane ticket: knowing that fares may drop and that you're probably getting screwed, or never knowing how much extra cash the airlines actually got off you. Either way, there's only one thing to do to put your mind at ease. And that's... EVERYTHING humanely possible to get the absolute lowest fare.
Which is why we've put together this list of flight-booking hacks. Some are safe, some are risky, but all are designed to help you outsmart the airlines and save money on your next trip.
1. Book your ticket 47 days before a tripAt least that's what online search engine CheapAir concluded after crunching the numbers on over five MILLION flights last year. According to their research, buying a domestic ticket 47 days prior to takeoff is the best way to score the cheapest fare.
2. Clear your browser's cookiesYou know how you keep refreshing your browser window every 11 seconds in the hope that fares will somehow magically drop? Turns out, doing that may actually make your flight more expensive. Airline websites use browser cookies to help track your search, says Min-Jee Hwang of Wiser, a firm that analyzes pricing strategies. It's called "dynamic pricing" and it means that prices change based on demand and conditions. Incognito windows are a popular way of getting around dynamic pricing, says Hwang, but they only work sometimes. The best thing to do is to clear your search history and your cookies.
3. Fudge your locationThanks to regional pricing, where a ticket is purchased -- or its "point of sale" -- can affect its price. International tickets are often cheaper in countries with lower standards of living, says Erica Ho of Map Happy, and booking from a “fake” location can significantly lower the price. The key is to convince the airline that you’re actually buying the ticket from the other country.
How does it work? According to Ho, it’s as simple as using the airline’s regional website (or masking your IP address to make it look like you live there) to buy your ticket in the foreign currency. So, let’s say you wanted to fly from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. All you’d do is log onto South African Air’s local site (.za, NOT .com) -- or use a VPN to get a South African IP address -- select the ATL-JNB flight you want, and buy it in Rand -- preferably using a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.
There is one possible hang-up with the hack, which Ho claims has worked for her 80% of the time. Some fares are “resident-only” and can’t be used by a foreign national. Although she notes that once you have the ticket, rarely does anyone check. So... good luck.
4. Fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays
Fridays and Sundays are the most popular days to fly; we know this. And nobody wants to fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Saturdays because it means sacrificing extra vacation days. Or having to pretend you're still asleep on the couch while your buddy gets ready for work on Monday morning. But if you are willing to fly midweek, you can save money, as airlines can't afford empty seats on flights and lower fares to encourage off-peak booking.
5. Fly off-peak hours too
You’ve probably heard this a million times, and we’ve mentioned it before, but the best time of day to fly is between 5am and 7am, or after 8pm.
6. Book an impossible connectionThis maneuver is risky but can pay off in spades, if you're willing to gamble. The key is to book a connecting flight that you are almost certain to miss, and then try to strong-arm the airline (nicely, of course) into rebooking you on a more expensive DIRECT flight before you ever take off. For example, you book a New York to Los Angeles flight with a tight connection in Kansas City but then ask to switch to the New York to LA non-stop when you get to the airport, explaining that you're worried about missing your connecting flight. Like we said, it's risky, but if you tell gate agents early enough, and if the direct flight isn’t fully booked, you might get lucky.
7. Use "hidden-city" ticketingAnother gamble that can also save you a lot of money involves hidden-city ticketing. Instead of booking a costly non-stop flight from Hartford to Charlotte, book a cheaper flight from Hartford to Atlanta, with a layover in Charlotte, and then simply stroll off the plane in North Carolina.
While there are websites to help you uncover these layovers (skiplagged.com and flyshortcut.com are but two), the airlines are wise to the scam and have started to crack down -- both on the sites and on passengers. Get busted and you could be fined. So make sure you know your airline's policies, buy a one-way ticket so they don't cancel your return trip (and they will), and don’t check any bags.
8. Fly two different airlinesOnce upon a time, two one-way tickets costed A LOT more than a single round-trip fare. Not so any more. These days, buying a one-way fare can be more cost effective. Plus, you can often score better departure times and/or arrive and depart from different airports. Some online booking engines already mix and match flights, but they just don't show you all the available combinations. So be sure to check each airlines website.
9. Change your flight the day you're travelingSay you wanted to fly in the evening but bought a less-expensive noon flight instead, you may still be able to pull off a switch -- if the math adds up. Some airlines, like JetBlue and American, charge lower fees ($50-$75) for same-day changes. American, in fact, doesn't even charge you the difference in fare between the two flights. If your airline has no (or a low) SAME-DAY change fee, it's worth calling in the morning to see if there are any seats left on the later flight.
10. Book by fare, not by destinationIf you're an adventurous free spirit with $300, a guitar, and no idea where you want to go, Kayak has an explore tool/map that shows you flight costs, searchable by temperature, price, flight time, and activities, rather than by destination.
11. Sign up for email alerts from your favorite airlines and booking sites
Sounds straightforward, right? Well, it is. Most airlines and travel booking sites target their loyalty program members -- as well as people who're signed up for their emails -- with exclusive deals and sales. Create a filter and a dedicated travel deals folder, that way your inbox isn't flooded and you only need to check it when you want to travel.
12. Take advantage of your 24-hour refundIt's a little known, and underutilized, rule in air travel: you've technically got 24-hours after you book a flight to change or cancel your ticket, even it's non-refundable. Track the fares for the full 24 hours after buying and if the price falls, call the airline – often you can cancel and rebook without penalty.
Correction: The original version of this story noted that JetBlue and American Airlines do not charge a same-day change fee. Unfortunately, that’s untrue and the story has been amended to reflect our dashed hopes.