Where to Find the Best Deals on Airfare

Probably the most common question that people ask me is, “how do you find such good deals?  Where do you look for these cheap fares?”

There is not a quick, simple answer to that question.  There are several different avenues that I monitor on a regular basis for good fares.  I’ll detail those later in this post, but #1 reason why I’m able to travel on such good deals is that I’m flexible.

By “flexible”, I mean that when seeking out deals, I am generally  looking for neither a specific destination, nor  date.  All I want is for the fare to preferably be leaving the DC area (DCA, IAD, or BWI), though I certainly make exceptions to that requirement, as I frequently “fly” from the Philadelphia 30th Street train station via the United / Amtrak code-share.  I’ll also consider flying from New York – especially for good international deals.  Once I see a fare to a cool place (hopefully far, far away), I check availability to make sure it fits into my schedule.  This generally means I’m looking for a weekend.  If those two criteria are met, I’ll pretty much go anywhere.

A ridiculously cheap airfare sent me to Istanbul for a weekend in February!

A ridiculously cheap airfare sent me to Istanbul for a weekend in February!

I know this is not necessarily the answer people want to hear, but it’s the truth.  If you’re looking to travel on specific dates to any destination, you have a good chance of getting “lucky” when a good fare comes about.  However, if you are looking for a certain destination at a certain time, things get substantially tougher – you’ll actually have to search for fares, and they will most likely not be one of the crazy deals that you want.

In reality, I travel so often due to both finding great deals, and by using miles that are earned at least in part by flying far distances for cheap by acquiring airfares that I find using several of the below flights:

Below are a list of resources that I use to check for both deals, and for specific flights:

Where to hunt “deals”

  • TheFlightDeal.com – This website is an awesome resource for those who are casually browsing for deals.  It is a blog that calls out fantasic deals.  It evaluates fares on  a CPM (cents per mile) basis to show the value of the fare.  Follow this site on Twitter to stay on top of the deals.  Notice that the site has a menu option where you can select a specific US city.
  • FareMagnet.com – Similar to The Flight Deal, FareMagnet is also a fantastic resource that alerts folks to abnormally awesome airfares.  You should also follow this site on Twitter if you’re looking for deals.
  • Travelzoo “Today’s Best Fare” Airfare specials – These are not always accurate, but they do provide a nice, at a glance view of lowest airfares out of specific US gateways to various domestic and international destinations, sorted by price.  This is a good starting point for finding good fares.

    Today's Best Fares from Travelzoo

    Today’s Best Fares from Travelzoo

  • ITA Matrix —  For hardcore searching, I run searches from WAS to a list of places on the west coast on a semi-normal basis.  This tool tells me when and where there’s space, and how much it is listed for.  This is more of an advanced search tool, but it allows searching to multiple cities and returns the cheapest airfares — for that reason, it’s an invaluable resource for airfare hunting.  This site requires a bit of direction, and I will detail how to search for cities in another post.
  • Flyertalk mileage Run message boards — Though these fares are sought specifically by and for mileage runners, they certainly can be used by anyone.  It is Flyertalk etiquette to evaluate a fare on a cents-per-mile (CPM) basis.  On this site, CPM is calculated referring to Premier Qualifying Miles (generally the actual mileage flown), and not redeemable miles.  The goal is to fly as far as possible, for as cheap as possible.  Generally speaking, a “good” mileage run deal comes in at less than 5 cents-per-mile.  A very-good mileage run is less than 4 CPM, and an amazing mileage run would be less than 3 CPM.  This can be overwhelming if you’re new to it, but some threads started here regularly feature some really great deals.  Learn your airport codes if you plan on using this site!

These five resources are great, but it does take a bit of time to stay “up to date” on the fares disclosed on these sites.  Since most of these deals are so good, they rarely last more than a day or two.

The best resources to search for specific flights

  • ITA Matrix — Again, this is the most thorough search engine for finding fares between defined city pairs.  The only downside is that you cannot book directly on the website – you must go to the airline’s website, or another booking site in order to make a reservation.  There are a series of codes to return exactly what you may be looking for, and I will detail these in a later post.

    ITA Matrix Search and Syntax for hints on searching

    ITA Matrix Search and Syntax for hints on searching

  • Kayak.com – This is a very popular and very useful metasearch engine for flights.  It searches over 120 websites to find the best price.  It’s usually pretty accurate and gives great results.  Definitely a good site if you know what you want and need to book today.

You can search all you want for fares.  There are a few tricks of the trade, but many times it just comes down to luck.

A mistake fare put me in this seat from Seoul to LA for less than $250!

A mistake fare put me in this first class seat from Seoul to LA for less than $250!

Below are a few tips:

  • Be flexible.  As I indicated earlier, this is probably the best way to get in on an airfare deal.  The more you limit your options, the less likely it is that you’ll find a great fare.  I routinely fly from BWI or IAD instead of my preferred DCA – simply because I can get fares that are sometimes hundreds of dollars cheaper.
  • Be alert.  Use all the avenues above to their fullest.  The more you monitor fares, the more likely you are to benefit from them.  This can be crazily time-consuming, but if cheap and frequent travel is your goal, this is just a fact of life.  Use Twitter, RSS readers, and online forums to better your chances at finding deals.
  • Fares tend to be re-filed by the major airlines on Tuesdays around Noon, Eastern time.  This is often a time where you can find some of the better pricing out there.  Contrarily, fares can also raise at this time, so if you’re debating a trip with what you deem to be a reasonable price, book it, don’t wait!
  • If you see a mistake fare, BOOK NOW and THINK LATER.  When I see something too good to be true, it may be.  But lots of times, the airlines let them slide because they’re a headache to deal with.  Just book the mistake fare and work out the details later.  If it doesn’t get canceled by the airline, you’ll likely have plenty of time to work out the hows and whys of the trip.
  • Make friends who seek out deals.  What’s better than monitoring fares on the reg?  Having friends who monitor fares and then alert you of them!  Since I’ve been doing this for a while and have friends who share the same interest, I’m often alerted of awesome deals that I may have missed, or that I just didn’t see.

All in all, cheap fares are out there.  It’s just a question of how much time you’re willing to put in to find them.  There’s no “magic bullet” to finding the cheapest fares all the time, but by visiting some of the sites suggested in this post, and by adhering to some of my hints, your odds are much better!