As a twenty-something living in New York City and lacking any sort of bottomless trust fund, travel used to seem like an unattainable luxury. While visions of balmy nights in Buenos Aires or volunteering with elephants in Thailand would dance across my mind, the reality of airfare kept me grounded (literally) and stuck day-dreaming. While I would happily have swapped hotels for hostels and guided tours for serendipitous encounters to save on money, my wallet cringed when it came to the purchasing of a flight.
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Everything I knew about traveling changed the day I booked a trip with friends to Colombia on a whim. Perhaps I had endured one too many day dreams or had lived vicariously through one too many Facebook albums, but on this particular day I threw care to the wind and purchased a round trip flight to Cartagena on JetBlue. To my surprise no bank accounts were depleted or wallets sacrificed on the altar of travel–instead my trip was beautiful, affordable and feasible–ultimately proving I can afford to see the world now. With my flame of wanderlust fanned, the next year took me from Colombia to France, France to St. Martin, back to Colombia and over to Panama as I embraced budget travel and all its tricks.
Often I come across the question of how does one afford to travel? Lavish hotels, all-inclusive resorts and first-class flights can lead people to believe that their dream trip will have to wait until retirement. That simply isn’t the case. Like most things in life, travel is what you make it and while you can customize a vacation to fall within the buckets of “budget” or “splurge,” there are tips to finding affordable airfare–no matter your travel style.
#1: Learn to Fly When Other’s Don’t
The first trick to saving on airfare is learning to opt for travel times that others tend to snub.
When it comes to travel planning, it’s true that one day can mean a difference of hundreds of dollars. While the convenience of leaving on a Friday afternoon beckons to travelers like a siren’s call, it’s the mid-week and red-eye flights that will help you save big.
Flight costs fluctuate due to many factors—including oil prices and timing—but it is the load factor that will make or break your wallet. Simply put, airlines just want to fill their seats so a prime time trip to Panama with high demand for tickets will prove more expensive than a half-empty 2 am flight headed towards the same destination.
Off-hour flights during the week are cheaper because there is less demand for seats (AKA a lower load factor) and, as a result, a drop in ticket prices. The first trick to saving on airfare is learning to opt for travel times that others tend to snub.
Tip: According to Farecompare.com, the cheapest day of the week to fly is Wednesday while the best time to purchase a flight is Tuesday afternoon. Sign up for airfare alerts such as Airfare Watchdog, that will conveniently e-mail flight deals direct to your inbox.
#2: Play Some Flight Search Roulette
Consider me a flight search fanatic. With the time I spend perusing flight search engines, learning about budget travel and planning vacations with friends–I’ve taken on airfare with the same vigor as a gambler approaching a craps table. I used to run into the open arms of Orbitz and Expedia—congratulating myself on being savvy with airfare—until I discovered websites like Skyscanner and Momondo.
Finding a plane ticket is like a choreographed dance—you don’t simply run on stage without a plan, you take time to go through the steps and motions.
- Start by getting an idea of price by visiting Skyscanner or Momondo—these search engines will pull in all airlines (including the global and smaller budget fliers that Orbitz and Expedia leave off). Get an idea of price to your destination and establish a baseline for what you should pay.
- Check the airline’s website. While it may seem counteractive to buy direct from an airline’s website, sometimes airfare can be priced lower in a direct buy rather than through a search engine (some of which can tack on fees).
- Know when to buy. Kayak has a fantastic tool that shows the price trend in tickets you’re searching for. For example, if in the market for a flight to Peru, Kayak will use cost data to recommend when you should buy or hold off on making a purchase.
Tip: Sometimes you do not have a destination already in mind and are blindly looking up flight prices wondering where you can afford to go. If this is the case, Skyscanner allows you to search from your city to everywhere, which will give you a blanketed price range of how much it costs to get from where you are to anywhere in the world. GeniusFlight is also a tool that helps you choose a destination by searching for flights with your budget in mind.
#3: Clear Your Cookies
Some booking sites record your browsing data and will increase the price point of a flight that you have searched for. For example, if you are in the market for a round-trip flight to Barcelona and are scanning sites like Travelocity or Orbitz, your web data is being recorded and kept on hand so the next time you check out the same flights they will actually show a price increase!
Tip: When searching for flights, try switching browsers and clearing out your cookies to erase your browsing data as this often can skim money off ticket prices.
#4: Strike While the Iron is Hot
You’ve found the ticket, braced yourself for the red-eye/mid-week flight and are ready to make the purchase; but should you? Knowing when to whip out your credit card and lock in your trip is just as important as being savvy during the flight search process.
There is lots of debate on when is the best time to buy a ticket and most agree that the 6-8 week window before a trip is when tickets are at their lowest (this does not apply to major holidays when tickets should be bought early in advance).
As Cheapoair explains, “in 2013 the best time to buy a domestic airline ticket was 54 days in advance, or 7 1/2 weeks on average.” Striking while the iron is hot (i.e. during this window) can save you hundreds of dollars vs. jumping the gun and locking down a trip prematurely.
Tip: Airlines tend to announce sales in the middle of the week, so avoid shopping for flight prices on the weekends as most of the deals will be posted Tuesday through Thursday.
Think Like a Travel Agent
Whether your travel style is to live in the moment or have a thoroughly outlined itinerary, when it comes to planning a trip it is crucial to think like a travel agent. There are endless tricks and tips to being a savvy traveler, finding affordable airfare and planning a vacation that take time, patience and research.
While you may be excited to lock in that flight to Bali so you can focus on reading up on the food scene and beaches, remember that a travel agent would take time to carefully search for the best deals for their client—as you should do for yourself!