How to buy cheap airline tickets

View from airplaneI don’t do a lot of air travel but when I happen to go somewhere I try to use the most out of what I know about the travel industry and the online tools that have grown around it to get the best savings on my airfare.

Unfortunately there is no single source for the cheapest airline tickets because a lot of factors affect the price. The ticket pricing depends on your departure/destination airport, airline, and time of travel and there is no single tool that will show you the complete picture.

But before I get to the tools part let me first list some general tips that apply when you want to save on air tickets.

  • Buy a package — buying a hotel room with an air ticket can often save you a lot. This also brings extra revenue to the booking agencies and if you happen to use one you will be reminded about the savings not once
  • Be flexible with dates — plus/minus one day can make a huge difference with air travel. Once I saved around $200 on a ticket to Europe by moving the departure date from June 1 to May 31.
  • Research nearby airports — many services provide an option which will enable you to include into your search the nearby airports around your departure/destination point. This may help you reduce the price.
  • Go for extra stops — non-stop flights are usually the most expensive and if you have time at your hands consider a connecting flight instead

Below are the online tools to help you find the best ticket price grouped by category. Each category is different and serves its own distinctive purpose.

Search Engines

These will search for the best price and then redirect you to the booking agency or airline website to buy the ticket. Search engines are free to use and make money from advertisement. Sometimes the listed price will not be up to date since search engines often cache prices to speed up search. Use them to get an estimate and don’t be surprised if the price at checkout will end up slightly higher.

United States


Booking Agencies

These will search for the best price and will charge you a fixed fee (around $5) to book the ticket. Unless you are in a hurry it is always a good idea to check the airline website directly (see the list below) before paying the agency. Just as with search engines the booking agency may sometime display stale pricing data although this usually happens less frequently

  • Orbitz — I have had the best experience with this company, their customer support actually answers phone calls. ;-) They claim to search 455 airlines.
  • Expedia — The largest and most popular booking agency according to Alexa ranking. Their airlines selection looks impressive as well.
  • Travelocity — I have always liked their “Flexible Dates” option which allows me to shop for discounted tickets however most competitors nowadays offer the functionality as well
  • Cheaptickets — another website to check. From my experience the prices you will see are the same as at Expedia or Orbitz but their booking fee can be $1 or $2 less
  • Hotwire — is owned by Expedia and has a shorter list of suppliers. I personally don’t see why you would want to use it instead of Expedia which gives you better search options
  • Priceline — better known for their “Name Your Own Price” functionality available with hotels (read about it here).
  • Qixo — a smaller and less popular agency with a subset of functionality compared to what you will find at the competitors

Airline Websites

You will get the most current information if you go to the airline website directly. Buying from the airline removes an extra piece in the ticket sale transaction chain which is always a good thing if you want to minimize the chance of an error with booking. Besides some airlines don’t list tickets with the agencies at all and if you want to have the complete picture you have to check these directly.

Travel Forums

Discuss travel deals and get tips from other travelers like you.

Travel Deals Sites

Last but not the least. These websites are operated by people who are professional bargain hunters in travel industry. If you travel a lot subscribing to their newsletter for hot travel deals delivered to your mailbox might be a good idea.

Photo courtesy of SilentFury at stock.xchng

Last updated: 03/25/2008

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