This Airfare Expert Shares His Top 6 Tips Every Bargain Lover Should Know About Air Travel

published Jun 4, 2019
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Traveling on a budget isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s definitely not impossible — especially if you get a little strategic.

Whether you’re dreaming of backpacking through Europe or just want to keep a few tips in your back pocket for next time you book a flight, here are a few tried-and-true methods for traveling on the cheap, without sacrificing your sanity.

1. Booking early is best, but stay patient

While there’s a persistent myth that there’s a “best time” to book your flights — say, Tuesday at 1pm or Saturday at midnight — Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, says this approach is outdated. “This recommendation may have been helpful 25 years ago when airlines first started loading their fares online and would do so typically once a week, oftentimes Tuesday at 1pm,” he says. “But nowadays, airlines are constantly updating their fares every hour if not every minute, so there’s no longer a single best time of the week to be searching for flights.”

While there’s no “magic bullet” time for searching flights, there are some guidelines about how far in advance to book travel. “For domestic flights, you typically want to book at least one to three months in advance. For international flights, two to six months in advance is best,” says Keyes. If you’re looking to fly during a peak travel period — such as summer or around Christmas or New Year’s — Keyes suggests adding a couple months onto his recommendations.

Also worth noting: Since you’re strategically buying your flights during these time frames to take advantage of lower prices, don’t just book any fare. “A few months in advance is when fares are most likely to drop, and those excellent fares are the ones you want to hold out for,” says Keyes.

2. Avoid last-minute booking

While booking a flight last-minute is sometimes unavoidable, Keyes says it’s usually not the best move from a financial perspective: “Last-minute sales used to be common, but now airlines jack up the price in the final days to get as much revenue as possible from business travelers who tend to wait until late to book their flights.”

3. Take advantage of frequent-flyer programs

Since it’s free to join an airline’s frequent flyer program, there’s really no reason not to take a flight and get credit for it. To get the most out of your travel, always keep in mind when you’re booking that most major airlines have partner airlines where you can credit your miles. “For example, if you’re taking a Lufthansa flight, you can credit the miles you’d earn to your United MileagePlus account,” says Keyes. “That way, you can try to get enough miles in one account for a free flight rather than spreading a small collection across dozens of airlines.” To determine how you can get the most bang for your buck, Keyes recommends Where to Credit.

4. Make an elite friend (on the fly)

It may have been enough to dress nicely for a flight in, say, the 1970s, but these days, talking yourself into perks like all-inclusive airport lounges doesn’t quite work that way. “Unless you have an expensive credit card or elite status and an international flight, it costs $50 or more to get in,” Keyes says. But there’s a workaround. “Most people with lounge access are permitted to bring in a guest, so you can hang outside the entrance and when someone’s heading in by themselves, ask them if they’re willing to be a good Samaritan and take you in as their guest.”

5. Leverage an overbooked flight

Similarly, it’s pretty uncommon to sweet talk your way into a seat upgrade — typically, this only happens when a flight is oversold. “Airlines that involuntarily bump passengers owe them up to $1,300 in compensation, and after the United incident, they’re terrified of denying a passenger boarding, which gives you leverage to make some demands,” says Keyes. “In addition to compensation, your ticket could be upgraded to business class on your new flight, a request that many airline agents would be happy to grant.”

6. Break up your itinerary

If you’re looking to fly to a remote destination, it’s often cheaper to break up your trip into two, separate itineraries. For example, if you live in New York and want to travel to Santorini, you’ll likely find fares around $1,500. But don’t dismay quite yet. Instead of giving up your Santorini dream, Keyes suggests checking flights to Athens, which Scott’s Cheap Flights recently found nonstop from NYC for $439 roundtrip. From there, book a cheap flight from Athens to Santorini (about $60 roundtrip), bringing your total cost to $499 — or $1,000 off the original $1,500. Not only will you save some serious cash strategically planning your flight, but you’ll get to spend some time in Athens!