There is so much varying advice out there on how, when and where to purchase airfare online. It takes a lot of research to find consistent tips and even then it’s a game of roulette, playing the complicated and constantly changing algorithms. The best thing you can do for yourself when it comes to playing the online airfare game, is to bring patience and calm to the table. Here’s my advice for finding the best fare while maintaining some semblance of sanity and peace.
1. Collect Tips from Experienced Travelers
Start talking about your travel plans early and collecting tips from other travelers. Keep your ears open and listen for websites or travel planning methods you've never heard of or considered before. Keep a notebook with you or a memo pad in your phone dedicated to travel data collection.
2. Know Your Budget
Outline your total trip budget, including airfare. I always budget at least $1,000 for an international flight and about $400 for a domestic one. I’m usually able to meet those numbers, give or take, and any overage or underage comes from or gets added to my overall trip budget. This way you’re still on track with your budget even if your flight costs a little more than you anticipated; you’ll just have a little more or less to spend on Italian coffee.
3. Set Aside Time for Research
If you only have 15 minutes to peruse and compare the sites, you’re not going to get anywhere. Clear your computer’s desktop and close all the open tabs. Create space and time for your search (and for all those pop up search windows). Once you get serious, consciously set aside anywhere from one to three hours to comparison shop the sites and narrow down your flight options. Take notes on what site you found what fare on, or copy and paste the itinerary to a separate document so you remember what options you’re comparing. Get organized so you don’t go crazy. Be prepared to book when the reasonably priced, ideal fare within your budget comes along.
4. When to Buy
Consistent advice says to book 6-8 weeks in advance. Don’t book too early and don't wait too long. The old rule about booking far out in advance is obsolete unless you're traveling during a holiday or at the height of peak season. In fact, ticket prices will be higher a year out than they will be as the flight gets closer. When it gets to be about a month from the flight, prices will either dip low or shoot up high. I prefer not to take the chance of rates going way up and miss my window for a reasonable fare, but that gamble can certainly pay off.
There is a lot of speculation about what day of the week to book your online ticket. I’ve read articles that say to book on Wednesday at 1am, to only book in the morning, to book on Tuesdays and even research as specific as recommending to book on Tuesdays at 3pm. The only consistent advice I've found, is to book midweek after the weekend rush. Tuesday through Thursday seems to be the best time to find good deals.
5. How & Where to Shop
Have a go-to first search, on a site like kayak.com. This is your comfort zone search and where you'll go to get a frame of reference. Choose an aggregator that will comparison shop for you. For instance, Kayak automatically compares with sites like Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline among many others to bring up the best fares among that collection. Once you’ve identified the best fare on Kayak, you’ll have a place to begin your own comparison shopping.
For your next step, choose an international aggregator like Skyscanner or Momondo. This ensures your search will include international budget airlines like Ryan Air and others that don’t come up on US based booking sites. No booking sites offer all the information, so your best bet is to use several different engines.
6. Things to Know Before You Book
Once you've identified one airline as having the best fare, you should go directly to the airline’s website to compare. Often, that fare will be offered at the same price as the aggregator, possibly even cheaper. When booking directly through the airline website, I have found future communication and changes/cancellations easier to deal with. But even then, it’s a benefit I spring for only when it saves me money or costs the same as purchasing through the aggregator.
If you find two flights with the same or similar fares on different airlines, choose the airline that offers your miles or affiliate miles rewards program so you can get added frequent flyer benefits. Often airlines will have an alliance or family of different airlines whose miles can be used in tandem, for instance American Airlines miles can be accumulated when flying British Airways, etc.
7. Recommended Travel Sites
The following sites seem to be the most popular and, from my experience, the best to compare when booking international flights. Again, keep your ears open for sites friends have used and had success with and add them to your list:
8. Search Tools & Tricks
On Kayak and other sites, you can search itineraries with anywhere from zero to 2+ stops. Pay attention and make sure all options are checked to increase your fare options and comparisons. Sometimes flights with two or more stops are cheaper, sometimes they’re more expensive.
- Most sites, including Kayak, allow you to search fares based on your flexibility with a fare calendar or +/-3 days option.
- Kayak also offers advice and price trends, but remember, it's still a gamble. There is no sure way of predicting when trends will shift.
- Make sure to check the option for nearby airports if you are at all flexible with your travel destination.
- Plan your trip for the off-peak season.
- Fly midweek, not on peak weekend travel days like Friday or Sunday.
- Extend your long layovers to maximize time on the ground and see the cities in between your destinations.
9. Other Advice
Know how many stops your chosen itinerary has and make sure the cost of money versus time is worth it to you.
Pay attention to the number of travel hours on your itinerary. In one search I did, itineraries to and from the same destinations were anywhere from 16-42 hours. Even if the cost of the flight is much cheaper on the 42 hour journey, you may end up with an overnight layover and have to spring for transportation and hotel stay in your layover destination.
Budget airlines in Europe, like Ryan Air, offer very cheap flights but severely limit luggage allowances, sometimes only allowing one piece of specifically sized carry-on luggage. Make sure to check luggage regulations and pack/prepare accordingly.
I find it worthwhile to compare one-way tickets against round trip fares. I highly recommend searching one-way tickets, but know that you may be selected for additional security screening on a one-way ticket and plan accordingly.
Know the tourist visa guidelines and limitations in the country you are visiting. I once booked my travel for a 32 day stay in Bali and then found out my tourist landing visa was only good for 30 days. Overlooking things like this can end up being very expensive, even dangerous. It’s also important to know which countries, like India, require advance visas. You’ll need to have proof of a booked itinerary in order to procure these visas and you want to allow plenty of time for that process.
10. Don't Drive Yourself Crazy
You've chosen travel as a way to enjoy and experience the world. Keep in mind that how you treat this process is the beginning of how your journey will unfold. Do your due diligence, find a great deal and pull the trigger. The sooner you buy your ticket, the sooner you get to move on to the fun part of planning your trip. So, if it's within your budget and doesn't cost you tens of hours in layovers, consider it a good deal, buy your ticket and start getting excited about your trip instead of spending hours on the internet playing this infuriating game.
Once you've booked your flight, stop looking. Know that there will always be cheaper flights, that's just the reality. Don't beat yourself up over it. Settle into your choice and head to the bookstore to begin your mission to find your destination's best travel guide…
Kristin Daemon is a yoga teacher, freelance writer and owner of Seaside Yoga, the first yoga studio in the small town of Seaside, Oregon on the rugged, Pacific Northwest coast. You can find and friend her on Facebook or check out and follow her blog, kristindaemon.com.