I'm pretty notorious for searching for a cheap flight. I'll cut whatever corners I can (6 a.m. departure, three plane changes, etc.) just to save a buck or two.
CheapAir.com has just come out with a helpful list of hints for finding cheap airfare.
1. Check fares early and often: On average, the fare difference between the best day to buy your airline ticket and the worst is $236. Airlines change fares constantly, often multiple times a week. So when it comes to buying an airline ticket, timing is everything. Start checking fares as soon as you know you'll be flying. Then, check continuously, at least once a week to get a sense of what's a good deal. And when you find a fare you like, be ready to pull the trigger since the same fare may not be around for very long.
2. Buy at the right time: CheapAir did a study last year and found that for domestic flights 49 days (about seven weeks in advance) was, on average, the optimal time to buy plane tickets. But that number can vary quite a bit depending on where and when you're going. The most important takeaway from the study: You'll likely pay a big premium for booking too late (within 14 days), or for booking too early (more than five months in advance).
3. Some days are cheaper than others: The day of the week you fly on can make a big difference in your airfare. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally the least expensive days for domestic flights and Friday and Sunday are the most expensive. If you're willing to be flexible, check a bunch of alternate dates around the same time period because you never know when there might be one combination of dates that has a fare a lot lower than the dates around it.
4. Be mindful of seasonality and holidays: Knowing when to go can matter just as much as when to buy. Because the most important factor that influences the price of a particular flight is how full that flight is, it makes sense that travel during spring break, Thanksgiving or Christmas time would be more expensive than normal.
5. Mix and match airlines to get the cheapest flights: CheapAir.com features a "Mix & Match" category that essentially lets you combine two one-way fares that may or may not be on the same airline, to form a round trip. "Mix & Match" options come in handy when either (1) the best possible fare for an itinerary requires travel on one airline going out and another airline coming back; or (2) the airline with the most convenient outbound flight doesn't have a convenient return flight or vice versa.
6. Sign up for airfare alerts and track routes: To help keep an eye on fare trends, sign up for CheapAir FareTracker alerts. You'll get notified more quickly when a sale starts and get a head start when only a limited number of seats are available. Acting quickly when a fare sale starts can save you a lot of money.
7. Prepare for extra bag fees: Different airlines have different policies on baggage. You should factor that into your purchase decision.
8. Check alternate airports: If there is more than one airport near your origin or destination city, check them both. The more options you have in terms of airports and travel dates, the more likely you will find what may be one of the last discount seats to where you are going. CheapAir automatically checks some nearby airports for you (San Francisco and Oakland; Miami and Ft. Lauderdale; New York and Newark; Washington, DC and Baltimore), but if you are willing to use other alternates, you should check those, too, by doing separate searches.
9. Break up families or groups into separate purchases: This one sounds counter-intuitive -- the more people that go, the better the rate should be, right? That's rarely true with the airlines; "group discounts" are few and far between. Because airlines will typically limit the number of seats per flight they sell at their lowest rate, sometimes you can actually price yourself right out of a good deal simply by having too many passengers. If, for instance, Airline X has two seats remaining on a flight at $100 and a bunch of other seats available for $150, if you do a search for a group of four, the price that will come back will be $150. But if you search for two seats at a time you can buy two for $100 and only have to pay the extra $50 for the second two. How do you know when to do this? Always search first for your whole group at once to make sure that the flight has enough seats to accommodate everyone. Then try the same search for a smaller group.