The holidays are coming, and if you haven’t already booked your flights you may be in for a rude surprise. Here are some of my favorite tips for booking cheaper flights when demand is tight. They’re also handy any time of year when you think a particular fare costs more than it “should.”
There are some other crazy tricks like hidden city ticketing that I don’t discuss here, but for the average traveler these tips are simple and worry-free. They just require a little extra legwork to uncover new options you didn’t know about.
Consider Alternative Destinations
The most important piece of advice is to take a holistic view of your travel plans. If I’m going to visit my family in Santa Rosa, CA, the small local airport has a reputation for higher fares, but I can also consider San Francisco and Oakland, which can be 50% cheaper. San Jose and Sacramento are further away but also viable options if there is a significant price differential.
Of course, traveling to a more distant airport may mean that you need to rent a car. If you need a rental anyway, it’s not such a bad deal. Larger airports may even have lower rates. If it’s a new cost, then make sure you’re not paying more than you save on your ticket. The extra driving time and hassle also merit consideration.
Mix-and-Match Award Travel with Paid Fares
Fares don’t always follow logical rules. I need to visit my in-laws in Amarillo, TX, and flights to Dallas are about $300 round-trip. But if I want to add a short, 300-mile jump to Amarillo, the total fare will climb to $600 round-trip (or higher). Why pay for the whole thing?
I’m writing this a month after I booked this particular trip, and the fare are more comparable. However, here’s how you can quickly see if it’s cheaper to fly partway. Start by using ITA Matrix (or Hipmunk) to search from your home airport. Your destination should include your actual destination and the possible connecting airport(s).
In this case that would be Dallas if I’m flying on American, or Houston or Denver if I’m on United. Openflights.org is a great resource to see which airlines fly where. Get creative! For example, maybe you fly to Las Vegas on Alaska and then connect on Southwest to Amarillo.
Remember to check the box to allow travel to/from different airports so you can book an open jaw — maybe the cheapest option is actually to fly to Amarillo and back from Dallas. That means you only need one award ticket, from Amarillo to Dallas to complete the trip.
On the results page, it may be easier to look at the price of the complete itinerary rather than individual flights. Look for the menu option that says “To/From” and you can quickly check and uncheck boxes to see how the price changes if you pick different airports. Here we see that we can save at least $44 per person by flying to AMA and from DFW. Not really good enough to justify an award ticket for that missing leg, but in other cases it really adds up.
Ironically, I sometimes find that the short connecting legs that lead to such expensive tickets are also the easiest to book with frequent flyer miles. My wife and I chose to book a separate ticket to Dallas and then used a total of 18,000 Avios points to book two round-trip awards to Amarillo (4,500 per person each way).
Avios is the currency used by British Airways, but you can use them to book flights on American or Alaska, too. If you have miles with United, Alaska, or Delta, they also have similarly cheap award prices for short flights.
Separate Reservations May Be Cheaper
One of the most common problems I face booking travel for a group is that there aren’t enough seats available at the cheapest price for everyone. Unfortunately, many airlines require that all passengers are booked at the same fare — so everyone has to pay a higher fare as a result.
The solution is to figure out how many tickets are available at the cheapest price, book those, and then book the remaining tickets at the higher price under a separate reservation. The average cost will be lower than if you tried to book everyone at once. For domestic flights we may be talking about a difference of $20-50 per person — easily $200 for a family of four. For international fights it can be $500 per person or more.
One of my favorite ways to search for mixed itineraries is to use ITA Matrix. You can’t buy tickets from ITA, but it will display an asterisk next to prices that represent more than one fare. On the final screen it will break down the price of each ticket separately. You can then go to the airline’s website and you’ll already know how to break up your purchase.
Another option is to start your search with one person on your favorite site, find an itinerary you like, and then repeat the search with your entire party to see if the price changes.
Book Now. Really!
Time is running out. Although normally you can book a ticket as little as 2-3 weeks before departure and still get a good price, holiday prices rise more quickly. This is because (1) many other people are buying so the cheapest seats sell out sooner, and (2) prices are generally higher when the airline knows there is big demand.
I recommend you find something you like and book it now. If you get a change of heart you can always cancel it within 24 hours for free. (A few airlines, like American Airlines, only let you hold it for 24 hours. Cancellations will have a penalty.)
If you’re looking to book award travel, things are definitely not going to get any better. Holiday travel is a whole other ballgame. Though you can often find award space open up at the last minute on many flights, planes are more likely to be full during the holidays. Waiting to book award tickets will be a gamble.
I strongly recommend booking flights directly with the airline. It will be much easier to change flights, and the airline will be more cooperative when rebooking you in the event of delays or overbooking. Are you trying to use an online travel agency because they offer package discounts? Airlines have those, too!