This post was last updated on September 18th, 2014
We haven’t always been savvy on how to save money on airfare.
In fact, it took traveling to 21 countries for us to realize that maybe it was time to open up frequent flier accounts. Yikes.
Luckily for our bank accounts, this past year saw us investing some time and energy into learning how to purchase tickets wisely.
And you know what the best part was? It didn’t even take that much time or energy.
With just a few simple steps, we’ve literally saved thousands of dollars on our airfare purchases.
We want to share how we do it. For full disclosure, we are by no means the experts. We don’t do mileage runs. We don’t read forums or research promotions. But we’ve still been pretty successful. Plus, at the end of the post we’re going to direct anyone who wants to take their travel hacking to another level to an awesome resource.
There are a few super easy ways to save money on airfare. Many of these you might already be doing, but let’s go over them just to make sure:
1. Be as flexible as possible
Be flexible with the dates you are flying. Be flexible with the times you are flying. If you can, be flexible with the airports you are flying into.
It’s amazing the difference a day can make in the price of a flight. Typically mid-week flights are less expensive as the demand for a Tuesday flight is less than that of a Friday flight; however, it’s always best to check all your options. We recently saved over one hundred dollars each on tickets to Europe by changing our departure date by one day.
2. Shop for tickets at the right time
We stick by the notion that flights are the cheapest if you purchase them on Tuesday afternoons. However, it’s best to watch your ticket in advance and see if the price fluctuates at different times throughout the week.
Some say six to seven weeks before your desired departure date is the best timeframe to purchase a ticket. We are rarely that organized. Know that you will pay more if you purchase your ticket last minute or too far in advance.
3. Get e-mail alerts from airlines and search engines
We always sign up to get email alerts about fare changes for the tickets we’re watching. We use Scyscanner, but there are certainly other options out there. It’s also a good idea to get email updates from major airlines. Discounts don’t always happen on Tuesdays, and sometimes the airlines don’t advertise their biggest promotions outside of their email list.
4. Clear your cookies when searching for flights
I recently had an airline representative tell me that this is a gimmick, but I’m sticking by it. Just a few days ago when we were looking at tickets to Mexico, we watched the price double as we kept refreshing the search page. Some airlines and search engines track if you are a returning visitor and use this to gauge your likeliness to buy a ticket. The more times you visit the page, the higher the price goes up. It’s always safer to clear your browser’s cookies and cache to make it appear that it’s your first time looking at the flight.
5. Call the airline
If you want to use a specific airline, always check to see if there is a less expensive rate that the representatives can see. This is especially true when making purchases with frequent flier miles. Let’s go back to that Mexico flight. We could only find tickets online for 80,000 frequent flier miles (economy class). When we called customer service, a representative found us the same flight for 60,000 miles in first class! Sometimes they will charge you a fee for purchasing the flight over the phone, but you might still end up saving money.
Our favorite way to save money on airfare comes at the airport itself. It takes a bit of luck, flexibility, and a pre-purchased ticket, but it can end up saving a lot of money in the long haul.
Airlines continually overbook their flights. They know that for some reason or another, a certain percentage of people who book flights won’t show up. However, their formula doesn’t always work out, and often there are more seats sold than available on the plane. By signing up to get bumped, you are giving up your seat. The airline will give you meal vouchers, pay for your hotel (should you need one), put you on the next plane, and—here’s the good part—give you a voucher towards your next flight. The value of the voucher depends on the airline, but from experience it’s around $600 for international and $300 for domestic. There are some catches to this. You have to use the voucher in a year from the date it’s issued and it cannot be combined with other offers (like frequent flier miles). Additionally, you must redeem it for tickets on the airline’s website (where prices are sometimes more expensive). Still, if you travel frequently, it can work to your benefit.
Note: Thanks for everyone in the comments who informed us we may be too proactive. If you volunteer to early you may not get a competitive offer. As with booking, timing is everything.
We paid $25 per person for our roundtrip tickets to Costa Rica because of vouchers we had from getting bumped. And that’s including baggage and taxes. That’s cheaper than filling up a tank of gas! Typically we ask the gate agents at the check-in counter if the flight is overbooked, and if so, request to be added to the bump list. Occasionally we get annoyed looks if the flight isn’t even close to being full, but normally they actually appreciate having volunteers. It’s best to ask early though—as more people learn about this trick, the competition is increasing!
Frequent Flier Miles
Okay. Let’s get into the juicy stuff: frequent flier miles. Used correctly, frequent flier miles can save you some serious dough. And they aren’t nearly as difficult to obtain as you might think.
Most people don’t earn the majority of their frequent flier miles by actually being a frequent flier. Weird, right? By doing things you are already doing now, you could be earning miles towards your next trip.
Before you start earning miles though, you need to open up free accounts with the airlines. We have accounts with Delta, American Airlines, and United. Each of these airlines is in a different alliance, or network of airlines. You can typically earn to use miles on any airline within the alliance; hence why having one account within each alliance opens you up to the most reward possibilities.
Opening up credit cards that earn you miles is probably the quickest way to earn frequent flier miles. We’ve only started to utilize credit cards, but so far it is working well for us. Typically with an airline credit card, there is a hefty annual fee (that may or may not be waived the first year) and high interest rates. However, you’ll receive a generous number of miles for signing up for the card—often anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 miles! There are also added benefits, such as earning miles for every dollar spent on airfare, free baggage, boarding in the coveted “zone 1”, etc.
Obviously there is a lot to consider before opening up a whole slew of new credit cards just for the sake of miles. For one, there is the annual fee. It might be waived the first year, but you will need to decide if the benefits are worth keeping the card open after that. Should you decide to cancel the card, your credit score could drop a point or two.
More importantly, you have to decide how you handle credit. These cards are not the type to accumulate debt on. With the astronomical interest rates, you’ll want to pay off your total balance every month.
We have credit cards with Delta Skymiles American Express, Starwood American Express, American Aadvantage, and The Hyatt Chase, and we’re also in the process of applying for a Chase Sapphire. These cards have a variety of benefits and allow us to earn miles and hotel rooms. The annual fees pay for themselves in the miles and hotel rooms we use, and we don’t carry a balance on any of the cards.
If we are making any purchases—especially on airfare—we put them on these cards. That way all the money we are already spending is at least helping us work towards free flights. So if we want to make an online purchase, we put it on a skymiles card. Then every dollar we’re spending earns us one mile towards a flight. Sometimes our cards will even earn us 2 to 5 times the miles for every dollar spent.
If credit cards aren’t for you, there are other ways to earn miles! Buying something from BestBuy? Do it on a site like Mileage Plus Shopping and you’ll earn one mile for every dollar spent- no special credit card required. Similarly, you can earn miles with restaurants you normally eat at from programs like Skymiles Dining. The important thing here is to make the money you’re already spending do more for you.
We’ve only covered the basics of how to save money on airfare. However, if you want to get serious about earning frequent flier miles and staying in the know on what promotions are happening, we recommend the Travel Hacking Cartel. All our knowledge about frequent flier programs comes from here, and we’re huge fans of the founder, Chris Guillebeau. There’s a 14-day free trial and then it’s $15 a month. The program truly streamlines the process of understanding and obtaining frequent flier miles. If you are saving for a big upcoming trip or know that you’ll be traveling often, this is for you. We are paying members ourselves, and since our membership we’ve earned enough miles for two free international flights—without spending any extra money. Score!
Travel Hacking Cartel is an affiliate link. However, we only recommend products we use personally.
So that’s what we do. Now let’s hear from you.
What do you do to save money on airfare? Have you tried any of the tips above or do you have any to add yourself?
We love hearing success stories and adding more tips to our books!