The world is huge

Don't miss any of it

Travel news, itineraries, and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.


Airfare 301: The Buying Process Made Easy

Airfare 101 covered questions about planning a trip for minimum cost—the “where” and “when” of scheduling a trip. Airfare 201 covered how the airlines play their fare games and how you can game their systems. This session covers how you can work your way through the maze of buying options.

As with the other parts of this confusing course, there is no “school solution” for the best way to find the best airfare. You have to try as many of the approaches as you can—or as time permits—and determine which provides the best outcome for your particular itinerary. For the most part, I concentrate on Internet-based buying channels, with a few necessary detours.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}The Preliminaries

Presumably, you’ve decided the basics of your airfare buy—when to fly and when to ticket. You know about how much you expect to pay. Your next question is where and how to buy your tickets.

Who Flies There?

By the time you get to this point in the process, you probably know the airlines most likely to meet your requirements. In the few cases where you aren’t sure yet, you can easily determine who flies where:

  • Just about any big online travel agency or aggregator can show you which airlines fly between any two points. Our own Flight Schedules search engine is fine for that purpose.
  • Not all search engines list every domestic airline, however. You may have to check a few lines separately—notably Southwest and Allegiant, two lines that often offer the best deals wherever they fly.
  • To see about the new low-fare airlines that have sprung up recently in Europe and Asia, check with CH-Aviation (Europe), Flybudget (worldwide), Flycheapo (Europe), SkyScanner (worldwide), or WhichBudget (worldwide).
  • Similarly—again, as far as I can tell—none of the big online search engines covers charter flights, potentially useful from Florida and Canada to Europe and the Caribbean.

Check All the Alternatives

Start your search with one of the big online travel agencies—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity—that post fare from most airlines or one of the popular aggregators— Kayak, Mobissimo, SmarterTravel’s sister site TripAdvisor, Vayama—that post fares from multiple travel sites. This search should give you a very good idea of your final price on most routes. And using these sites provides several advantages over using individual airline sites:

  • They provide a quick view of the entire competitive airfare landscape for your trip—and a benchmark “low” fare against which to compare other options.
  • They can easily make up round-trips and connecting itineraries that involve more than one airline.
  • Several provide access to unpublished negotiated airfares that you don’t see on airline sites. These are rates that individual airlines negotiate with individual high-volume agencies that are sometimes lower than their own best deals. They’re essentially the same as consolidator fares.
  • Extra fees and charges can make a big difference in your final cost of travel, but, as far as I know, so far only two search sites allow you to compare fares inclusive of extra fees for baggage, in-flight services, and such. TripAdvisor‘s excellent search engine works well for conventional baggage and fees. Startup site TruPrice gives you a wider choice if you have specialized baggage such as skis, bicycles, and such. You can ultimately determine fees on almost any site, but only these two search engines allow an initial fare comparison that let you specify which fees to include; the others show fees only after you select a flight.

Typically, neither the online agencies nor the aggregators cover Allegiant and Southwest, and, as far as I know, none of the online agencies covers competitive negotiated fares. If you want to avoid missing out on those deals, use our BookingBuddy application and have it quickly search as many individual airline sites and agency sites as you wish without the hassle of re-entering your itinerary details for each site.

Airline Websites—Always Check; Maybe Buy

Once you identify one or two likely candidate lines, your next stop should be on those lines’ home websites. Individual airline sites provide a different set of advantages:

  • Many airline sites allow flexible-date searches so you can determine if switching your flights by a few days either way can cut your costs significantly.
  • According to the industry mavens, some airlines limit the number of lowest-fare seats they offer to sell through third-party sites, so an airline may still have those lowest-fare seats available through its own site that no longer show through the third-party sites.
  • Several large lines occasionally offer their own take on unpublished fares by notifying frequent flyers and selective customers about sale fares that you can find only if you know a temporary “promotional code.” These may be lower than anything the third-party sites can find. If you don’t regularly receive these from your airline, sister site Airfarewatchdog tracks and posts them.
  • Airlines may offer “bonus” frequent flyer miles for buying through their sites.
  • Obviously, if you want to any sort of deal that involves frequent flyer credit, your only choice is to go directly through the airline.

Maybe Bundle

Most big airlines and big online agencies now promote bundling your airfare with hotel accommodations as costing less than the same components if arranged separately. Presumably, at least some of those bundles take advantage of another type of unpublished fares—”tour basing” fares—that airlines don’t post or sell separately.

Maybe Go Opaque

Although most of the opaque action these days seems to be in hotels rather than airfares, Hotwire and Priceline still offer reduced prices on air tickets. You probably know the opaque idea: With Hotwire, you see the fare but not the schedule or name of the airline until you make a nonrefundable buy; with Priceline, you “name your own price” without knowing either the airline of the schedule before you buy. Although I use opaque buying for hotels and rental cars all the time, I don’t like it for air trips: I like to know both schedule and airline before I commit. However, if you’re sure you won’t have to cancel and don’t care about schedule, you could take a stab at an opaque price. But unless the price is lots lower than you can get anywhere else, forget opaque.

Travel Agents for the Tough Ones

With all the focus on Internet travel buying, a topnotch travel agent can sometimes be your best answer. Beyond saving you all the hassle of searching and comparing, travel agents can excel in complex international itineraries. A good “rate desk” at a travel agency can find and use ticketing tricks you can’t duplicate online at all—free stopovers, ticketing through low-fare intermediate points, add-on excursions, and such. Specialized travel agencies are also about your only source for low-cost round-the-world and circle itineraries that involve combining a string of discounted one-way tickets to complete a circle.

What About Quality?

The three reports so far concentrate on tickets in coach/economy class, and are based on the assumption that all airlines are essentially equal and only the fare matters. That’s certainly true for a majority of you: You’ve clearly indicated that although you’d like roomier seats and better service, you aren’t willing to pay a premium for anything better than the abysmal coach/economy product you get from most airlines these days.

If you’re in the small minority of travelers for whom service and quality matter more than just rock-bottom fares, I have one quick suggestion: For now, JetBlue stands out among all domestic lines for a superior low-fare product and Air New Zealand is good across the Pacific. Next time, I’ll go into more detail about “avoiding the cattle car.”

Make the Deal

It’s your choice how to buy—through an airline, a third party agency, or a travel agent. Once you find a good deal, grab it—delay may mean missing your best price.

Your Turn

When do you finally press the purchase button for airline tickets? Share your strategies for finding the cheapest flights by submitting a comment below!

Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns and Hotwire.)

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Top Fares From