Finding Cheap Flights: Tips for Beginners

Published by Rick Seaney on January 17, 2013

A California man is seeking my advice on booking a family trip to Massachusetts after confessing he hasn't been on a plane since 1995. I suspect he's not alone, so I put together this list of beginner tips which can benefit anyone in need of a quick refresher course.

Listen to Rick Seaney – he makes this all so easy:

Flying 101: 10 Tips for Infrequent Flyers

How to Shop for Cheap Flights

1. Comparing prices is a must: You can't assume one airline is always cheaper than another.

The cheapest tickets will vary from airline to airline depending on a variety of factors. Airfares are not static – airlines can and do change ticket prices all the time – so the only way to know for sure which carrier has the cheapest prices on any given day is to compare prices whenever you shop for airfare. Always use a comparison search site like FareCompare and you will save money.

2. When to shop: The best day to shop for airfare is Tuesday, at about 3 p.m. eastern time.

Airfare sales typically launch late Monday or early Tuesday and to remain competitive, rival carriers will match the lower prices, a process usually completed by 3 p.m. Tuesday. Shop then for the biggest selection of the best prices.

Fly the Dead Zones and Save

3. Be flexible: If you can fly during less popular travel periods, you can save real money.

Try a trip in an off-peak season – travel during one of the dead zones – or fly off peak times of day, such as overnight or red-eye flights, or flights at dawn. Traveling when most people don't want to fly is a recipe for savings.

4. When to fly: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are usually the cheapest days to fly.

Airlines know most of us prefer to maximize our vacation time by flying on Friday and returning on Sunday, so that's when domestic airfare prices are almost always higher. For the very cheapest prices, look for flights midweek and note that many airline sales in our Deals Blog often limit the best prices to Tuesday and Wednesdsay flights only.

See the World's Safest Airline Rankings

5. Where to fly: Sometime you have airport choices, and some can be cheaper than others.

Big hubs are usually cheaper than smaller airports but not always, and when you have a choice in airports, compare prices. For example, Southern California flyers can choose between LAX, Burbank, Orange Co. in Santa Ana and Long Beach, any one of which can be cheapest depending on when you shop. Flyers in the nation's capital can choose between Dulles, Reagan and Baltimore. Again, compare to save.

6. Finding package deals: These are common on many sites.

Individual airlines offer package deals, FareCompare offers hotels, other sites offer a variety of travel combinations. Look around your favorites websites or create a do-it-yourself package.

Which Flyer are You? Find Out and See the Fees to Pay and Avoid

Pitfalls to Watch For

Fees: Airlines charge for everything from snacks to blankets these days – even a phone call to make a reservation will cost you – but for most travelers the big impact comes from bag fees. Only JetBlue and Southwest still give you checked-bags for free but you should know that Spirit and Allegiant now charge for carry-on bags, too. In general, pack light or be prepared to pay about $50 round-trip for a single checked-bag.

Refunds: The cheapest airfare is usually non-refundable, so don't make travel plans unless you fully expect to be able to fly. If you must cancel your flight, what you paid will usually be credited toward a flight taken within one year, minus a hefty change fee and any fare difference.

Delays: Airlines can be delayed by a variety of factors, especially weather, so bear this in mind if you're looking at a flight with tight connections. If your flight is delayed, try to be first in line to talk with a gate agent (and if you're not first in line, get on the phone to the airline as well). Airlines fly planes at near-full capacity these days, and there are precious few seats on the next flight out to spare, so contact your airline immediately when a delay or cancelation is announced to improve your odds of getting another seat.

Don't be late: Sometimes flights leave a little early. If you're not in the gate area, the plane won't wait for you. Plus, it's easy to get delayed in a long line at security.

What to Know about Airport Security

Banned items: The only liquids allowed are in containers of 3.4 ounces or less so buy that bottle of water after you clear security. Here's a list of other banned items.

Shoes off: You will have to take your shoes and jacket off, and open up your laptop case, unless you are one of the privileged few.

Body scanners: You will either go through a metal detector or a body scanner. Opting out of the scanner is permissible, but the alternative is a pat-down.

No jokes: The TSA has no sense of humor when it comes to jokes about terrorism or bombs, and travelers who think they can harmlessly  joke about such things get detained (and even arrested) at the nation's airports every day.

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