Airfare is expensive and complicated, am I right? As someone who lives thousands of miles from family, I’ve been buying flights for holidays and vacation since I was 18. Over the years, I’ve picked up a few things that I find helpful.

First, you should think about how brand loyal you are. Some people are very loyal to a particular airline- maybe you have an airline credit card, you love their benefits, or they have a hub in your home city. Others are not particular  about choice of airline- price may be more important and you may be a member of lots of mileage rewards programs. There is no right or wrong answer, but you should figure out which one you are because it will influence your choices.

Second, the search. I like to start watching flight prices and getting a handle on possible itineraries as soon as possible. This may mean 3-4 months out from the travel dates, or even 6 in the case of major US holidays. The best time to actually buy can vary, but usually falls 6-8 weeks from travel. If you see a really good sale though, jump on it! Having an idea of what regular prices are will tell you when there’s a good sale.  I like using Kayak for the fare alerts and price trends. If you’re traveling internationally, you can also use Vayama, which finds different and smaller airlines.Wingtip

Third, not all flights are created equal. The things I look at are:

  • Price
  • Airport (big or small, how from home/final destination)
  • Number of stops/layovers
  • Total travel time
  • Departure and landing times (can be important for getting to/from the airport, especially if you’re taking public transportation or having a friend/family member drive you)
  • Fees (do they charge for checked baggage, do they charge for reserving a specific seat?)

With all of this information, you can now weigh your options. Maybe you find the perfect flight and it’s the cheapest and there aren’t any weird fees. Awesome- buy it now! But more likely, there will be pros and cons. Maybe a layover is $200 less than a direct flight and only an extra 1.5 hours of time. You have to decide of if time or money is more important at this point in time. This is also where brand loyalty comes in- if your preferred airline is $250 more than the competitors, are you willing to pay that?

Tip: avoid connections in places known for delays and where there could be seasonal weather issues. For example- having a stop in Denver in January when you’re on the way to a tropical location is risky- you could get stuck in a snowstorm.

Finally, you can search every day, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to buy. Multiple airlines usually announce sales on the same day, so it can pay off to wait until lunchtime or the afternoon (if you’re in the US).

And now you’re done- pick your seat, prepay for checked bags if you can, and remember to check-in to your flight up to 24 hours ahead of departure.

What’s your best tip for finding good flights?


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