Personal Finance

The Complete Guide to Purchasing Airline Tickets Online

wing-221526_640Finding the lowest fares on airline tickets can sometimes feel like one of life’s great challenges. No one really fully understands why the prices rise and fall when they do or why buying too early or too late means you’ll pay more for your ticket.

Some airlines make you pay to check bags, others don’t, while most of them gouge you for things that used to be free back in the day. Like sitting in an exit row. Remember when all you had to do was commit to leaving the plane last so you can assist your fellow passengers in case the plane hit the ocean, just so you could enjoy some extra legroom? Well now that privilege is going to cost you more than potentially just your life.

There are also about a million online travel sites from which you can book airline tickets, all of whom have names that sound like Pokemon characters: Trivago, Expedia, Kayak. How do you decide which ones have the best airfare choices? Aren’t they really all the same?

Buying airline tickets online is certainly convenient and mostly effortless once you finally make your way through the veritable Rubik’s Cube of confusion as to when you should buy, how far in advance, debating off-peak versus on-peak seasons, mixing and matching airlines, and weighing your options with respect to alternate airports all in the hopes of saving some serious coin on a purchase that is already way too astronomical for it to seem legal.

For instance, the day you depart on a flight can literally save you anywhere from $25 to $86. You fly out the day before or the day after and your fare just went up almost a hundred bucks. We’re not even talking about using frequent flyer miles either, there’s another migraine waiting to happen.

It’s all very silly and strange and for some reason this is all okay with the airline industry. With all of these obstacles to navigate in the hopes of getting a reasonably priced airline ticket, you’d think they were trying to make it tough for you to fly affordably. Oh right, they are.

Airline travel is nobody’s cup of tea, but there’s no reason the purchasing portion of the process has to be as unpleasant and hopeless as sitting in Terminal 5 of John F. Kennedy International Airport on Christmas Eve in a blizzard.

That’s why we’ve taken some steps to help make buying airfare at least somewhat easier and more manageable for even the most inexperienced traveler. This guide to purchasing airline tickets online is designed to help unlock some of the mysteries in your quest for the cheapest airfare possible, even to the popular destinations like New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and even Honolulu.

You’ll need to get ready, this isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  You’re going to need to get aggressive and persistent in tracking down your fares and be ready to spend some extended time on your laptop or tablet device.

You know how you always hear about those news stories where an airline screwed up and offered flights from New York to Paris for $32 when it should have been $1032, always wishing you’d been one of the lucky few to get in on such a spectacular deal? We’re even going to give you a heads-up on how you can be one of those lucky people the next time that happens. So read on, weary traveler, as we walk you through some of the crucial do’s and don’ts for purchasing airline tickets online.

The Price of Your Airline Ticket

There is no shortage of contributing factors that go into the price you pay for your airline ticket. We already know that the prices fluctuate from one day to the next, but when you’re just looking at prices on any day of the week you’re up against a barrage of circumstances that make up the cost of that ticket.

These include factors like one-way versus round trip, your itinerary, the desirability of your destination, and the date and time you want to leave. If you want to take off at 9am or 2pm you’re going to pay a little more than if you’re leaving at 11:30pm or 12:55am. The same goes for the day you want to travel (not the date, the day) as leaving on a Tuesday will cost you less than if you fly on a Friday or a Sunday.

What about holidays? Glad you asked, because booking a flight to leave on a Tuesday in the week or two before Thanksgiving, or any other major family-friendly holiday, is going to cost you more. It’s simple supply and demand at work.

On top of that, you’re also up against the price of oil and, here’s the real kicker, your price can be affected by when you specifically buy your ticket. It’s that last one – WHEN you buy your ticket – that seems to be the toughest nut to crack since no one can really determine what day (and time of the day) is best for finding the lowest airfare available.

Travel conceptThe Choices for Buying Online

Google the term “airline tickets” and you’ll be inundated with pages of results for seemingly countless airline ticket comparison websites. There are the comparison sites that give you the prices and availability of flights on every airline and claim to give you the lowest rates at all times (though we know those rates change depending on the time), while some of the sites give you the capacity to get the lowest, deepest, cut-rate discounts on flights if you like taking a gamble with your itinerary. You also have the option of booking directly with your preferred airline through their website or app.

The most popular comparison sites include Kayak, Trivago, Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, and Hotwire. You’re undoubtedly familiar with some or all of these sites through their advertising on television, radio, and billboards. You just log on, type in your destination airport, your departure airport, the dates you want to travel and the website will give you all of the flights and prices available for your trip.

From there you can compare the airlines against one another to see which one has the best price for your chosen itinerary. When you see those prices, some of these sites will offer you alternatives that might be cheaper, as long as you make some changes to that itinerary. Leaving a day earlier or a day later and extending or shortening your trip can all affect the cost of your airfare. The airports that you fly in and out of can also have an impact on the price.

If you’re not finding any airfare prices that you like, Priceline innovated the Name Your Own Price option which allows travelers to get discounts of up to 40%, according to the website, but there’s a catch…there’s always a catch. If you decide to take a shot at saving some extra cash on your airfare, you enter the dates you wish to travel and the destination.

Next is the best part, you enter the price you want to pay for the plane ticket. From there, Priceline searches to see if you can get a fare for that price and, if not, provides you with a counteroffer. In most cases, it’s still a price that’s somewhat lower than what you’re going to find otherwise. Is it always 40% lower? Not all the time.

So what’s the catch? You won’t know what your departure time will be leaving or returning, you won’t know the airline either (though you are guaranteed a seat on an actual passenger plane with a recognized carrier – you’re not flying in the cargo hold of a FedEx transport or in the back of a prop plane), and you could potentially have up to two stops either way. Some people don’t think that’s much of a catch while others don’t like not knowing before they fly. That’s up to you.

Full disclosure: I’ve tried their Name Your Own Price option on a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to New York City. I flew on United both ways, my departure times on each leg were around the mid-afternoon, and both were non-stop flights. My experience won’t necessary be the same as yours, of course, but I found it to be a great way to save money on an airline ticket because my travel plans were somewhat flexible. Those of you who must be in one city at a specific time on a certain date may not want to go the Name Your Own Price route.

One last thing, when they say name your own price, typing in something entirely ludicrous like $45 or $80 for a round trip fare any time of the year is not going to do you much good. So be sure to enter a number that’s lower than what you’re seeing for most flights but still commensurate with the current market rate at that moment.

When Should You Buy?

This is the big question that no one seems to be able to answer. There are plenty of theories based on official studies conducted by industry research groups and various data gained from testing those theories periodically.

Let’s break it down by advance purchase first. Some folks think that the earlier they buy their airline ticket, the more money they will save. It supports the notion that buying early means saving more money, because we all know that the longer you wait, the more the price will rise.  We’ve all seen tickets become more expensive the closer you buy to your expected departure date.

However, while an early advance purchase makes sense, it can actually prove detrimental if you buy too early. In fact, your airfare can become just as costly as purchasing the ticket a mere week or two before your flight. So if you buy too early, or buy too late, you’re going to be paying extra either way.

That means there has to be a sweet spot. A period of time where the airfare is at its lowest when you buy far enough in advance yet not too close to your date of departure. One of the common truths we do know about buying airline tickets online is that doing so just two weeks out from when you want to travel is too late.

The fourteen days leading up to your flight are when tickets are typically at their highest. So that narrows our sweet spot down just a bit. Taking some of the online data from those industry research groups, the numbers range from as little as four weeks to as much as six months as an ideal time to buy your ticket.

That’s a wide range, one you can probably narrow down considerably more.  Then you can consider all of those other factors that go into the price of a ticket rising and falling and the many variables that come with them.

The best thing to do is keep checking your preferred websites. If six months is too far in advance for you to plan a trip, and for most of us it is, then start your pricing as early as possible, up to three to four months before-hand. That’s the average time most of us have between planning a trip and taking it. Sure, you can decide you’re going to fly to Japan next year but you won’t start booking accommodations until then.

Let’s say you’re planning on flying to Austin, Texas for a concert in about four months. You should absolutely begin pricing out your options and start taking stock of which way the prices are moving, be it up or down. Don’t worry about missing out on what sounds like a great deal, in those four months the prices will rise and fall all over again. Just keep diligent about staying on top of the pricing trends. Many websites even offer pricing alerts, so you can get a text or email when the fare drops on the trip you want to take.

Let’s go one step further, is there a specific day of the week when fares rise or drop? We’ve determined that fares can be affected by the day you want to travel, but can they be equally impacted by the day you choose to buy your ticket?

The answer to that is yes. . . but which day is where the mystery comes in, you know, just to make it fun I guess. Many people think is that the best day for making a purchase is Tuesday, usually in the afternoon. But then there were some studies done here and there, which determined that Sunday nights were the best day. Then, economist Makono Watanabe started saying Wednesdays at 1am was the best time to buy.  If you do enough digging online, you’ll see that some have begun to believe Thursdays are the day for the best discounts.

There is one thing everyone can agree on, however.  No matter what, you don’t want to buy your airfare on Fridays or Saturdays. Why? Because those are the days where people are focused on doing errands and other things that aren’t necessarily work-related, like booking your vacation. The airlines know you take care of personal matters on the weekends, so they up the prices for buying airline tickets during those days.

So what day, then, is the best for purchasing? I’d still go with Tuesday or maybe Wednesday. Those seem to be the popular consensus, however, you may want to check the airlines directly to get the deeper discounts on those days. The word is you’ll find a better deal there instead of at the comparison sites.

winter-holiday-993244_640Seasonal Travel

We’ve already determined that the day you fly and the day you buy each has a lot to do with how much you’ll pay for your airline ticket. There’s another layer to the onion that can bring tears to your eyes when you’re booking a flight and that’s the season during which you plan to fly.

The airlines know what’s what, they know if you’re flying to Miami in mid-March it’s because you’re going down there for Spring Break. That’s a peak time to fly so the prices go up. The seasons are going to play a role in the price of your ticket for both domestic and international flights.

The “high” season of a location is usually determined by the weather, particularly when you’re flying overseas, and to some extent the school calendar. That’s when prices go up on pretty much everything, flights, hotels, even the local eateries raise their rates when they know the big crowds are showing up.

This doesn’t even take into account the holiday seasons, which can also make a dent in your wallet. We already mentioned that Thanksgiving and Christmas are heavy, peak times to fly.  Unless you buy early enough those rates are going to start to climb within a few months of that season. Buying in advance will be a big help, but you’re still likely to pay at a premium if you purchase eight or nine weeks before you plan to fly.

Whenever you start thinking about where you’re going to take your vacation this year or next, consider what the season is going to be like at the destination you’re considering.  Factoring that into your plans can help you save money and, should you decide to travel to a faraway land in the off-season, you could really get some great deals across the board. Not to mention you’ll be dealing with fewer crowds and that’s always a plus.

A Few Other Helpful Tips for Buying

We’ve covered most of the major points you need to know when buying your airline tickets online. But there are still a few other helpful hints you’ll want to keep in mind before you point and click on your next flight. Airline tickets are expensive, you’re going to want every possible advantage in your corner, so heed some of this advice as well to bring down those prices.

Don’t Check a Bag

This isn’t always feasible, but if you’re a light packer or only plan on being away for the weekend, try to fit everything you need into a smaller bag that’s carry-on friendly. Those checked baggage fees are really starting to get out of hand and you’re going to pay through the nose, especially if you have more than one.  If you do check a bag, be sure it’s not over 50 pounds or they’ll whack you for that as well.

That is, unless you’re flying Southwest, where checked bags fly free. If you fly any other airline, try to travel with only a carry-on and you’ll even get to skip waiting in baggage claim when you land. It’s a win-win.

Mix and Match Airlines

Sometimes the cheapest way to fly is not with a round-trip ticket but purchasing two one-way fares on different airlines. Many consumers have discovered this trick and they’re saving more money.  On top of that, waiting to buy on certain days and flying out on less expensive dates to airports that aren’t located in the busy city center of their destinations may also save you some extra money.

Sign Up for Flight Alerts

This was mentioned before in passing, but I wanted to stress this recommendation. Those airfare alerts can really help you save money on your trip.  They’re particularly helpful when you can’t spend every waking minute on your laptop or computer clicking and refreshing for the lowest fares.

You have a life after all, so let the ticket sites come to you when the price drops. It’s much easier, and it can even be lucrative. Remember when I mentioned getting in on those crazy fares that the airlines mistakenly published but you couldn’t grab in time?

Follow on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for their newsletter as well.  They post those insane deals that are only up for a very short time before the airlines correct their mistake. Now you can be one of those lucky few that you only hear about grabbing $100 airfare to Hong Kong.

Our Final Thoughts

I hope this guide has provided you with some modicum of clarity on purchasing airline tickets online. They certainly don’t make it easy to get the lowest fares and you can be sure that once more people learn these little secrets and hints, the airlines will pull the rug out from under everyone and switch it all up on us again. But in the meantime, use these tips to fly cheaper and smarter now.

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