You’ve booked your trip and now you need to get your plane tickets. Take our advice:
1. Book Your Flights Early, But Not Too Early
We recommend that you start looking for your tickets early, regardless of whether you are doing it yourself or using a travel agent. Early booking is important if you are flying from a small airport, on a route with limited competition, and/or going to a popular place at a popular time (e.g. the Caribbean in February, Florida during Spring Break, Europe in July, or on a major holiday). Often, however, airlines start with higher prices 364 days out and wait to see if their planes are filling. If they are, the price will stay the same or perhaps even go up if demand is high. If not, it will start to drift down.
Start looking as soon as your trip is confirmed, preferably 6 to 8 months before your trip, and start watching fares. The minimum time we recommend for booking is two months before an international trip and one month before a domestic trip;. You could end up with a less expensive ticket if you wait this long but you may also end up with a higher one.
2. Consider Using a Travel Agent to Book Your Tickets
You will receive a number of benefits when a travel agent books your tickets, including:
- You have an ally: If your flight is cancelled or delayed to the point that you will miss your connection or something else goes wrong on your flight, you have someone in your corner. Instead of waiting until there is an overworked airline employee to help you, call the travel agent you booked with. On-line travel agencies (e.g, Expedia, Travelocity) should work the same way but they just don’t have the same level of personal service. We have had people on our trips whose flights were cancelled and spent days getting bounced around and waiting for the promised return phone call that never came because they didn’t have a personal relationship with a travel agent.
- Time saver: Instead of you spending hours trying to figure out the best flight/price combination, turn it over to a professional travel agent to research and book
- Lower your anxiety: Especially for flights that are at all complicated, it’s really nice to have someone else making sure you don’t arrive a day too late or leave yourself too little time between flights.
The bottom line is that using a travel agent for anything other than a very straightforward booking can be the best decision you make. However most agents now charge a flat fee for buying your ticket, because they no longer receive commissions from airlines. Do not ask them to do research for you if you aren’t booking with them. That’s just rude. And although there is no guarantee that the flight they find is cheaper than one you found yourself, the other benefits are worth it.
3. Use Helpful Websites to Find Your Flight
These days there are many websites to look for plane reservations. They are actually travel-specific search engines, meaning that they search a variety of different sites including the major airlines (except Southwest - the only place to find their fares is on www.southwest.com). You may find different prices and flight combinations on different sites, so it definitely is worth checking more than one, and the actual airline websites too. Our favorite search engines are:
- Google flights https://www.google.com/flights/ This is blazingly fast and has a clean and simple interface. It also gives tips such as being able to save X dollars if you fly a different day. In addition, there is a world map on the initial page with prices for lots of destinations based on your departure city and date. Is it that useful to know you could fly to Tromso, Norway for $1,071 on February 21 from Washington, DC? Maybe not, but it's fun!!
- Skyscanner http://www.skyscanner.com Skyscanner searches not only airlines but also consolidators and travel agencies. Consolidators buy tickets from airlines at a discounted price and sometimes come up with remarkably low fares, especially if they have unsold tickets. Skyscanner also includes all the small budget airlines in Europe and increasingly in Asia. If you are flying internationally, one strategy is to see if there is someplace you can get to more cheaply and then take advantage of truly low-cost carriers. Many of these airlines do not show up on US-based websites so Skyscanner is the best way to find out about them.
- Kayak.com http://www.kayak.com/Kayak has an intuitive interface and many ways to filter results all at the same time - by airport, duration, take-off or landing times, layovers, airline etc. If you have lots of choices, Kayak can help you quickly sort through them based on your preferences. For common routes, it usually has a Price Predictor, which shows you how low prices have fluctuated over the last 90 days and, based on an algorithm, their best guess whether this is a good time to buy or whether you should wait because prices might drop.
- Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz are On-line Travel Agencies (OTA’s) which can also be helpful if you book a lot of flights, hotels or car rentals, it is nice to have the reservation information stored in one place.
4. Set up a fare alert.
Although fare alerts don’t monitor exact flights, at the least they remind us to keep checking the fare. If the price doesn’t come down or goes up and stays up for several days, we buy three months before the trip. At the very least, by then we will have had time to adjust to the fact that we are going to pay more than we hoped.
5. Use Your Facebook and/or Twitter Accounts
Follow the major airlines and also some websites that focus on lower airfares, such as Airfare Watchdog. This particularly works well when your dates are open and you can jump on a lower fare (Please, let me go somewhere, anywhere!). Many of the lowest fares can be found on social media but they only appear briefly.
BONUS TIP: Delete your browsing history: If you go back to a website that you have been looking at, delete first. The websites say that they won't track your activity and show you a higher fare just because they know you are very interested. But honestly, we don't believe it. The last time we returned to a site and only found a fare that was higher than the first time, we deleted the browsing history. When we returned for the third time, we saw the same fare that we had seen the first time. While Google is probably one of the biggest collectors of personal information that exists, the Google chrome browser has easy to use privacy settings and it’s simple to delete browsing history.