5 Shopping Tips for Finding Cheap Flights

You’ve probably heard me speak about the unofficial airline motto: “Never be a dollar more or less than the competition.”

Who cares about a buck? You should. A single dollar makes a difference in the results you get when shopping online for airfare and this is important information for you to know to get the best deals – the best deals in price and the best deals for you.

Best Way to Shop for Airfare Online

So should you jump on the price of the first airline listed? Not necessarily. Here are some things you must keep in mind when shopping for airfare online – in other words, the best airfare for you might not be the first one or two you see. It might not even be on the first or second page of results.

  1. Use FareCompare for comprehensive searches: We know you like to search many sites to be sure you’re getting the best deal, and FareCompare with its partner sites lets you do this in one convenient place.
  2. Use your search filters: The cheapest airfares may be for connecting flights but you may require a nonstop. Also, filter for nearby airports which might be cheaper than the closest one.
  3. Not all airlines are listed on search sites: Allegiant and Southwest only allow their prices on their own sites.
  4. Baggage fees: If you want to travel with checked-bags, you have to add that fee to the airfare or look for JetBlue airfares (or go to the Southwest site).
  5. Special requests: If you like guaranteed inflight entertainment, keep in mind the seatback screens on all Virgin America and JetBlue planes. If you want early boarding on Southwest or extra legroom on United and believe the cost will be worth it, look for those airline prices.

Shopping for Airfare Online

You’re online now so you know about online travel agencies and META search sites (like FareCompare), but here’s where it gets interesting: you search for airfare and are often presented with several different airlines offering the very same price.

Remember the motto (“never be a dollar more or less”) – the airlines purposely match prices on lucrative routes so they don’t lose out to the competition and I explain this in more detail in When to Buy Airline Tickets. For us shoppers, well, it’s human nature to jump on the first fare you see for the cheapest available price. However, if several prices are identical, which airline is listed first?

Airline (and Airfare) Order Online

Typically, airlines are listed alphabetically, but not by name – by airport code. Here are four airlines and how they would be listed in order by code (and each airline’s code is in parentheses):

  • JetBlue (B6)
  • Delta (DL)
  • United (UA)
  • Southwest (WN)

By the way, if you think airline codes are unusual, you should take a look at The Wacky Logic Behind Airport Codes – some of those are truly weird and downright funny.

However, note I said “typically.” Some sites go for a random approach, while others push certain airlines to the forefront because they may make more money off them due to contractual differences. Or there’s a feud like the one involving American and Orbitz which prompted the airline to pull its prices from the online site.


Finding the Best Airfare Deal

We all want the cheapest available prices, but we’re all individuals with different requirements, and you must keep that in mind while shopping online to get the best deal that’s right for you.

More from Rick Seaney:

Airfare Deals: How to Game Ticket Search Sites

Learn more about FareCompare and the cheapest days to fly and best times to buy airline tickets for year-round savings.


Updated: November 7, 2014