Julio Cortez/AP/File
A United Airlines plane takes off from the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport, in Newark, N.J.

5 ways to book cheaper flights

One thing you can do is travel during less busy times, whether that's early in the morning, on a Tuesday, or during vacation off-season.

Finding a good deal on airfare is becoming a complicated process. Ticket prices fluctuate constantly, while different fare categories and fees can make it difficult to understand exactly what you are — or aren't — getting. Finding a steal on airfare isn't impossible, though. We have five tips to help you get the best buy on your next flight.

Shop Around With a Search Engine

It's no surprise that with airfare, like everything else, you should comparison shop before you hand over your cash. Plenty of sites can help you find the cheapest fare by searching multiple airlines, suggesting less expensive days to travel, and emailing you when prices drop. Here are three of our favorites to get you started:

Google Flights
It automatically pulls up what it considers to be the best flights — typically those with the lowest cost and shortest duration — so you don't wind up with pages of search results.

By showing results in a chart, Hipmunk lets you easily see when each flight takes off and lands to best fit your schedule. Hipmunk also sorts flights by "agony" level, a combination of price, the number of stops, and the travel duration; it's a good way to find a flight that won't make for a miserable start to your trip.

This site clearly lists baggage fees to help you see the total cost. Google and Hipmunk provide links to baggage fees, but the prices aren't included with the rest of the flight info.

Another thing to consider is whether any nearby airports could work for you. For example, if you're flying to Los Angeles, you may think Los Angeles International is your only option, but four other major airports are in the area: Ontario International, John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Long Beach. You may find an alternate airport that's in a better location — and has a better ticket price, too. Both Expedia and Google let you easily check nearby airports, but won't do it automatically. (Click "nearby airports" in Expedia or the plus sign next to the airport name in Google.)

Also consider bundling your flight and hotel purchase for big savings. If you're looking for a hotel anyway, it's worth checking to see if a bundle is your best deal.

Pick the Right Time to Fly

When you leave can have as much of an impact on ticket price as which airline you choose. The general rule of thumb is that you'll find cheaper fares during less-busy times of year (or times of week or even times of day). The first thing to do is consider when you're taking your vacation; it's often more expensive to travel during the summer and holidays when everyone else is doing the same.

However, traveling in the off-season is usually cheaper — and as a bonus, hotel rates are typically cheaper, too. (Though be warned, the off-season is also when hotels and vacation destinations typically do any refurbishing because fewer people are there.) Just remember, what's considered "off-season" varies based on your destination. For example, while summer is a busy season for many tourist destinations, Las Vegas is quieter during that time due to the intense desert heat.

You'll want to pick the right day to travel, too. Again, the goal is to fly when fewer people are traveling, which means you'll benefit from lower fares and fewer crowds. The best days are typically Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday (with Thursday being a toss-up). All of the travel search engines we mentioned above will check for cheaper days to travel — and if your schedule is flexible, it can be well worth shifting your plans a day or two. Less desirable hours of the day can be cheaper as well, like extremely early morning and extremely late evening.

And Pick the Right Time to Book

Airline prices are constantly changing. Sometimes you can score a deal by booking very early — but other times you end up missing out on later sales. Sometimes booking late means you're seriously overpaying — but other times it means snagging a last-minute bargain. These price trends can vary based on the airline and destination, making them tough to keep track of. However, the usual ideal is to book two to three months in advance.

And, while it's not a surefire way to find low fares, many airlines update their pricing in the middle of the week based on what's selling, so booking between Tuesday and Thursday could result in a cheaper flight.

Know Your Fare Types

Every airline has a selection of different fare categories, from modest economy to lavish first class. But some fare classes aren't quite so obvious. What's the difference between United Airlines' Economy and Basic Economy? The carrier has made waves lately for its new Basic Economy fare, which doesn't let passengers pick seats or store a bag in the overhead bin. It's a restriction that sounds like a cash grab, but United isn't the only airline that doesn't include carry-ons in its base fare — Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit charge as well.

For some travelers, these fares could even be a cost savings. If you just bring a bag that fits under your seat or check a bag, you have the option of paying less. But getting a deal requires finding the fare that fits your needs the best.

Know Your Fees

Some airlines lure you in with cheap fares before tacking on fees that make for a very pricey flight. Baggage fees are the best known — often around $25 per checked bag, with additional charges for oversize or overweight bags — but there are plenty of fees that can hurt your pocketbook:

Seat selection fees Seats with more legroom or in more desirable locationscan cost up to $100.

Carry-on bags: While most airlines still offer two carry-ons for free, some charge from $15 to $50, like on Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, and United (depending on fare type). Spirit even charges $100 for a bag you decide to check at the gate.

Drinks: Allegiant and Spirit don't even offer water for free.

Snacks and other food: These can vary a lot in price — but are certainly more expensive to buy on the plane than to bring from home or buy at the airport. (American, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest still offer complimentary snacks, though.)

While some of these fees are avoidable — say, by packing carefully, so you don't need a large carry-on that goes in the overhead bin — if you know you're going to pay a fee, it's often best to pay it in advance. Many airlines offer discounts for paying up front, with higher prices at the check-in desk. You could also investigate different fare classes; if you plan to pay for more legroom, is it cheaper to just book business class instead?

This story originally appeared on DealNews.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 5 ways to book cheaper flights
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today