Five Tricks from a Travel Rock Star to Help You Get the Best Deal When You Fly

Spend your money during your trip, not on the vehicle that gets you there.
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Spend your money during your trip, not on the vehicle that gets you there.
Photo Credit: ProFlowers

Photo Credit: ProFlowers

Not all who wander are lost. Also: Not all who want to wander can afford to do so.

I’ve traveled to fifteen countries and counting. I have never paid for a hotel room or more than $500 for an airline ticket (OK, except for one flight to Asia). I believe that anyone can afford to travel if you learn the right money-conscious tricks. Here are mine:

Rock Star Tip #1: Check out all major airports in the area.

When you buy an airplane ticket, you are actually paying for several things at once. One part is the “seat rental,” which is what it sounds like—the actual cost of sitting in the chair. Believe it or not, this tends to be only about 10 percent of the fees (unless you are talking first-class seats, in which case, the seat rental is more than half the cost of the ticket).

Next, the airline adds its profit margin, which is about $30 or so per seat, and fuel prices, which I’ll get to in a minute.

And then you have the taxes, which are completely dependent on location, location, location. Have you ever wondered why sometimes you can fly from Chicago to Birmingham with a layover in Atlanta at a cheaper price than flying from Chicago to Atlanta? It’s because the destination city (Birmingham) may be offering a special discount on taxes and fees to the airline that week. So when searching for flights online, always check all major airports in the area. The destination taxes and fees can greatly impact the price of a ticket.

Rock Star Tip #2: Watch fuel prices.

Those fuel prices I previously mentioned play a major part in the cost of your airplane ticket. Historically, when gas prices go lower, so do flight prices, and vice versa. In particular, international flights have been subject to fuel surcharges that fluctuate with the price of oil. That makes all the difference in the world when you’re on a 3,000-mile flight in a Boeing 747, which uses approximately five gallons of fuel per mile.

Recent reporting in the Wall Street Journal noted that despite current low gas prices, airlines have not been passing those savings on to consumers, so this trick may not have the direct effect on your trip prices the way it does at the pump. But it’s helpful to keep an eye out for long-term gas price predictions, as that will affect ticket prices.

Rock Star Tip #3: Buy on a Tuesday or Wednesday or after midnight Saturday morning.

First, some background knowledge: Hundreds of thousands of airfare price changes flow into the system each day—just once on weekends, but up to three times a day on weekdays, at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 8 p.m.

So here’s the pointer: Many people know that airlines release their new fares on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. These days are when the cheapest tickets are found and sales are announced.

You also see some of the best fares first thing Saturday morning. Airlines change fares around 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, so if they’re trying to sneak one over their competition, they’ll do it with the last fare change Friday night. After airlines load the new fares into the system, it takes about two to four hours to show up on search engines, so fare changes will then appear in the airfare search engines around midnight Friday. Competition can’t match your sale fares until the 5 p.m. Saturday update. This little industry trick can save you big bucks in that short window, so you have to keep checking!

Rock Star Tip #4: Buy in advance.

According to a study by the Airlines Reporting Corp., which looked at tickets sold in the U.S. through travel agencies (but not directly through airlines), the cheapest time to book a domestic flight was fifty-seven days (eight weeks) in advance.

The next thing you have to know is the “six week, three week, two week, and seven day” rule. At each of those intervals, the airlines change the rates. But don’t forget to watch for rising and falling fuel prices. If you are six to eight weeks out, and you have reason to believe that gas prices might fall over the next few weeks, it may be worth it to take a risk and hold out—just keep in mind, chances are you will only save $20 to $30 with falling fuel prices.

Rock Star Tip #5: Learn to use consolidators and aggregators to find the best price.

Now comes a lengthy explanation about low-cost consolidators, by which I mean websites such as CheapOair, CheapTickets, and even the bigger ones such as TravelocityExpedia, or Orbitz. There is often a question about why tickets aren’t the same price if you buy from the airline versus the travel consolidator. The consolidators have a contract with each airline. They say, “We’ll buy one million seats from you at a flat rate of $100 each.” The airline agrees. They do not say, “We’ll buy five seats on flight 486 next Tuesday at a rate of $100.” That isn’t how it works.

Using several algorithms and software, it is all sussed out in the background. They all book off the same booking system (known as Sabre) while watching the availability on each flight. As seats sell out and demand goes up, the cost increases. The airline sets the going rate for the seats. However, the consolidator may realize that it has a chance to do some good business and sell the seat at an undercut rate. Basically, the consolidator chooses to lose a little profit on that one flight. Also, there are frequent deals and sales made from the airline to the consolidator. This allows good deals to be passed along to you, the consumer.

The differences between the bigger sites and the lesser-known ones are generally just the size and popularity of the site. Do keep in mind that bigger sites tend to have lower fees because, yes, the consolidators have to tack on a fee to your ticket as well.

Then there is something called a travel aggregator, such as Kayak. These sites act as a search engine of sorts for all the consolidators and airlines. They just pull all the information into one place so you can compare everything in one window. You don’t book a flight through the aggregator. When you select to buy a flight (or hotel or car), it sends you to the selling site (such as Orbitz or Delta).

This brings me to Priceline. This site is a great deal when it can work for you. Priceline goes to the airlines and consolidators and buys the hard-to-sell tickets from them at a discount. They then pass that savings on to you. Because these are for harder-to-sell tickets, it means they have multiple or long layovers, red-eye flight times, or early departures. You “bid” on the seat and tell Priceline how much you are willing to spend. Priceline then decides if it will accept your offer. You can save a lot of money doing this, yet you lose control of picking which flight you will be on.

If arriving at your destination at a specific time isn’t the most important detail, I highly recommend Priceline. This works best on last-minute flights. When an airline has a lot of extra seats on a flight, you can save a bundle just by booking through Priceline.

Drumroll, Please . . . the Best Way to Book a Flight

Here is the piece of advice you won’t find anywhere else. This is how I book a flight—and how I have managed to save hundreds of dollars on each flight while traveling around the world.

First, I go to Kayak on a Tuesday and search for the flight I want. (For the record, I’m an impulsive traveler. Rarely have I ever booked a flight more than three weeks in advance.) When possible, I click the +3/-3 button to search for all fares within a six-day window. It’s amazing how traveling just one day earlier or later can make a difference in price. (I saved more than $600 on a flight to Cambodia by flying a day earlier than planned because I discovered the fare difference by using the +3/-3 option.) I look at Kayak to get a general consensus of fares across all airlines for the destination I want. 

Then, I go over to Priceline and bid 50 percent less than the average. If Priceline rejects my bid, I work my bids up by 10 percent until I get accepted.

This method also works well for booking good hotel rooms. I have never, ever paid full price for a hotel room. (In fact, on Christmas Eve, I scored a five-star hotel room on the concierge level for 70 percent off the usual price.) [Editors note: After reading this, we followed Erins steps and booked a room at a five-star hotel for 64 percent off the rack rate. Incredible!]

Happy (cheap) travels!

Erin Ann McBride learned her travel secrets from her time as the Director of Social Media and Engagement Marketing for CheapOair.com. She is now a full-time social media marketing consultant and novelist.