Despite a season of hassles and high fares, air travel continues its robust upward trend.
Globally, passenger air traffic has reached 95% of pre-COVID levels, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration declared summer 2023 to be the busiest summer travel period on record.
Higher passenger loads on flights usually signal higher ticket prices. But experts say that with a bit of patience, persistence and good timing, you can find fair, even cheap, airfares for your trip.
Monitor fares and book when the price is right.
If you can, start your hunt for the best airfare well before the date you want to fly. That will help you recognize and respond when fares dip or begin to rise.
For international trips, that means starting to monitor fares up to 6 to 7 months in advance and purchasing 3 to 5 months in advance, says Haley Berg, Lead Economist at booking site Hopper.
For most US domestic trips, start searching fares 3 to 4 months before you plan to take a trip, says Berg, and purchase 1 to 2 months before takeoff.
For those who cannot plan that far ahead, “the main thing to remember is the 21-day rule,” says Scott Keyes of airfare search site Going. “Most fares include in the fine print an advance purchase requirement, which says that the cheapest fare is only available if booked at least, say, 21 days before travel. On Day 20, that previously cheapest fare expires, and the new cheapest fare is often $100 or $200 more expensive,” he says.
And you do not have to dedicate hours to checking those airfares each day on your own. Price tracking tools, services, and apps, such as Google Flights, Kayak, Hopper, Skyscanner and many others do a good job of monitoring fares for you and alerting you to deals and ideal times to buy.
“A key point to remember is that you don't have to book where you search,” says Going’s Keyes “In fact, the best place to search is rarely the best place to book.”
Go ahead and use one of the flight search engines to compare flights across many airlines, says Keyes, but once you find the flight you want, buy your ticket directly from the airline.
There are at least two good reasons for heeding that advice.
“Certain legal protections only apply when you book directly with the airline,” says Keyes. Most notably the US federal government's 24-hour rule that requires airlines to give you a full cash refund within 24 hours of purchase if you change your mind about buying that ticket because, say, you found a better fare.
Also, not having a go-between can mean fewer hassles if there is a weather delay or some other problem on the day of your scheduled flight.
Myths about booking
Do not bother staying up till 1am on Thursday to grab that cheap fare. The days when airlines uploaded their fares all at once are long gone. Now airlines constantly rejigger fares according to a myriad of algorithms that can change in seconds, minutes, or hours.
So, while there may not be a best or cheapest time or day to book your flight, there are some best times to take your flight, says Keyes, “Business travelers tend to avoid flying Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, so airfares are often 30% to 40% cheaper on those days.”
Hopper’s Berg agrees. “Flying over the weekend comes at a significant price premium,” she says, while Hopper’s research finds that flying midweek can offer savings of 17% on a US domestic flight and about 9% on those more costly international flights.
Cheap fares are not always that cheap
A few things to keep in mind about some of the cheap fares you may find.
Many of the airlines’ cheapest fares come with multiple stops, super long layovers, and stricter rules for refunds and rebooking. Others may impose extra fees for everything from choosing your seat to printing out a boarding pass or putting a bag in the overhead bin. Be sure to check the fine print so you do not get surprised.
Who has your back if things go wrong?
Once you have your ticket in hand, it is good to know your rights if things go wrong.
For flights that depart from an airport in the European Union, or which are operated by an EU airline, European Regulation EC 261 mandates compensation for flight delays and cancellations.
In the United States, if an airline cancels your flight, the carrier must offer you a full cash refund, although you may instead accept a voucher or a rebooked flight.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Fly Rights” guide offers more details in its “Consumer Guide to Air Travel,” while some additional benefits and reimbursements may be available to passengers via insurance provided automatically by the credit card they used to purchase their ticket.