How to Book the Best Airfares

It used to be much easier, but these days finding the best airfares can be almost as complicated as flying the plane itself. In today’s airfare marketplace, knowing where, when and how to look, are the skills required to get the best fares.

“For the airlines, it’s about getting you to pay the most you’re willing to pay, which is the opposite of what the consumer wants,” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel website JoeSentMe.com. A single flight can contain more than a dozen pricing categories and, “On a 150-seat plane, there could be 50 different prices,” he adds.

Recently, U.S. News spoke to Brancatelli and other travel industry experts about the best ways to grab a great deal. Here are seven of their insider secrets.

Woman looking for holiday on internet1. Book six weeks in advance. According to the Airlines Reporting Corporation, passengers pay the lowest price, nearly 6 percent below average fare, if they buy six weeks before their flight. After looking at four years of data, it determined that most people booked the cheapest tickets 42 days in advance. But the six-week rule isn’t necessarily a surefire strategy for snagging the best airfare. “This is just a trend,” explains Chuck Thackston, ARC’s managing director of data and analytics. “Airlines will make valuable deals available all the time. But, on average, we see this 42-day approach works.”

2. Scan for morning deals. Airlines post a limited number of seats at reduced fares at night, so Thackston advises snagging seats early. “Those tickets may sell out later in the day,” he says. Early morning is when most of these deals become available, although a few airlines release discounted tickets throughout the day.

3. Best time to buy: If you don’t find the discounts you’re looking for in the early morning, Farecompare.com says the best time to buy airline tickets is Tuesday at 3 p.m. Eastern. However, George Hobia, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, argues that deal times vary, so there’s no specific day or time of week to buy.

4. Cheapest day to fly: According to a recent Farecompare.com study, Wednesday is the cheapest day to fly domestically. Other low-cost fly days are Tuesday and Saturday, (with Friday and Sunday being most expensive).

5. Fly early. The best airfares can usually be found on early morning flights. “Yes, that means you have to get up at 4 a.m.,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com. The next cheapest flight times are around lunchtime or at the dinner hour. “Of course, the absolute cheapest time to fly is on those limited routes with red-eyes,” he says.

Related: Advantages of Taking Red-eye Flights

6. Check low-cost airlines individually. Comparison sites like kayak.com don’t do all the work for you. Some low-cost airlines, like Southwest and Ryanair, don’t allow their fares to be quoted on comparison websites. So be sure to check them separately. And do your homework to make sure the so-called “low cost” airline doesn’t tack on extra fees (think baggage), that drive up the cost.

7. Sign up for free alerts on AirfareWatchdog.com. Almost every major online booking site offers alerts that ping you when prices fall. AirfareWatchdog.com stands out by using people to vet deals rather than computer systems. “We only send updates when we think we’ve found a good deal, whereas other sites might update you when a flight drops $2,” says founder George Hobia.