Searching for the Cheapest Airfare: Is There a Silver Bullet?

At one time or another, we've all been a day late and a few air miles short when purchasing a plane ticket. So we turn to the internet. But with all the bargain travel sites out there, which ones truly offer the best deals on a consistent basis? Surely, there must be a spectacular site out there that's going to get me the cheapest flight every time, right?

Testing the Premier Airfare Sites
I thought it would be fun — and educational — to actually go through a real-life example with a test flight that:

  • Departs Atlanta, non-stop flight to L.A. (LAX) at any time on March 8.
  • Departs L.A. (LAX), non-stop flight to Atlanta at any time, March 13.

So let's dive in and take a look at the different types of airfare sites out there to see how they perform. The first step to finding the best deal is knowing what the business models are for the sites offering these tickets. Knowing this will result in some time savings and myth busting.

J.D.'s note: G.E. and I are working on this article in early March, which is why he's using these dates. But the article itself won't go up until May.

Direct Airfare-Booking Sites
We've all heard of these guys. They've seemingly been around since the advent of travel booking online. These sites will book your flight directly with the airline. For the most part, their prices are oddly in line with what the airline is offering directly. But they must make a cut somehow, right? More on this later.

The advantage to using the direct booking agents is that you get to check multiple airlines at once. Here's what I found in my search:

  • Expedia.com – The cheapest flight was using Airtran. $308 for the ticket, $21.40 in taxes and fees. Total of $329.40.
  • Priceline.com – The exact same flight on Airtran at the exact same price as Expedia.com.
  • Orbitz.com – Hmmm… that's odd. Same flight and price as Expedia and Priceline.
  • Hotwire.com – $329.40. Starting to sound like a broken record here.
  • Airfare.com – Ouch. Same flight on Airtran, but a bump in price. $326 plus $42 in tax for $368 total. Weird. How could the other three only charge $21.40 in taxes, but Airfare.com charge $42. I'll leave that one to them to answer.

Airfare Aggregators
Airfare aggregators basically pull from hundreds of booking sites and carrier sites at the time of your search. In theory, this gives them an advantage in that they should be able to find the airfare site with the lowest booking fees. Since you can't book directly with them and they don't have direct relationships with the carriers, they are supported by affiliate links to the direct booking agents and other online ads. Let's give it a shot:

  • Cheapflights – Okay, don't use these guys. They require you to click on the link to go to the direct airfare booking site in order to even see a price. Not very user-friendly.
  • Mobissimo – My search yielded two pop-up windows to Expedia and Orbitz. I don't like that. Then it also gave me a link to Airtran's site for… yep, $329.40.
  • Kayak – Ooooh… I've heard good things about these guys. Aw, crap. $329.40 on the Airtran site again.

Booking your Flight Direct on the Airline's Site
When in doubt, turn to the carrier itself. Airtran was the clear winner here over Delta, who was offering a round trip for $422 . Let's check their site. You guessed it, folks. $329.40. Oddly, they quote a ticket price of $286.51 and taxes of $42.89, the same tax amount quoted on Airfare.com, which varies from the $21.40 quoted on the other direct booking sites.

Hmmm…. could it be that the other direct booking sites who quoted $21 in taxes were offered a $21 lower price on the tickets than the public and pocketed the $21 difference in ‘taxes'. Someone forgot to send Airfare.com the memo on that one. Oh, and their regular ticket price was higher as well. Another memo.

We didn't see this in this example, but as we get closer to the departure date, it might be possible that Airtran updates their prices on the site if seats are not filling up. Many airlines are now offering RSS and Twitter feeds so that you can stay on top of special deals and updates.

When Can you Actually Get a Good Deal on a Flight?
As you have seen here, there is definitely collaboration between the airlines and the direct booking sites to offer prices that are consistent. Sorry folks, but there is no silver bullet best airfare price out there. The bottom line is that the carrier is going to offer the same deal to all of the best direct booking agents so as to not tick off the others. But, all hope is not lost. Here are four tips you can use when trying to find the lowest airfare:

    1. The key is to remain flexible. If you know the exact date you want to fly and come back, then the pricing all comes down to how many stops you are willing to make and how much layover time you can stomach in order to keep more money in your savings account.
    2. Flexibility also allows you to wait for deals at the last minute, and to choose from a wider variety of dates and times to get the lowest possible price. To this end, Farecast, now housed as Bing's flexible travel search can help predict when the the lowest pricing might become available. This is a great tool for the flexible traveler.
    3. And you most certainly want to have flexibility with the carrier you choose. Picking a carrier ahead of time because they have the best generic label peanuts or because they host your favorite frequent-flyer program may not be the best selection criteria. Had I chosen Delta (whom I do have frequent flyer miles with) over Airtran, it may have netted me an overall loss.
    4. Try setting up alerts and RSS feeds for common carriers that fly out of your home airport on a test flight of your own. Take a look at the prices on the day you set up the alerts and see what kind of offers you get. This way, if it's nothing good, you're not hung out to dry waiting for a good deal when you really do want to book.

What strategy do you use to get tickets on the cheap?

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Tonja
Tonja
10 years ago

I like to use farecast.com (I think Bing bought it but I still type in farecase and it gets me there). They have a fare history chart and attempt to figure out if you should buy or wait for prices to drop. I think the price predictor is pretty good.

Ryan
Ryan
10 years ago

I have tried every way to get cheap airfare, and the only sure-fire way to get cheap airfare is with skymiles. I have the convenience of being able to only fly Delta, being by Atlanta, GA. Therefore, I signed up for an Amex Delta Skymiles Card and got 30k free skymiles within the first 8 weeks of having the card. Each year I get a free companion pass that makes any flight for a companion worth only $99. The only drawback is you have an annual fee of $95, but that is well paid off by that companion pass you… Read more »

Mike Choi
Mike Choi
10 years ago

If you know your travel plans well ahead of time, booking a flight far in advanced is the only way I found to get the lowest price. For example, I booked a RT trip from New York to Costa Rica 11 months in advance, and ended up paying almost 40% less than if I booked it now for the same exact flight.

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

I have never had any luck using expedia, priceline, etc. The best method of getting cheap flights in my opinion is looking for the right price well in advance of your trip, and being willing to fly on Tuesday or Wednesday (those are the days I have gotten the best deals through Northwest/Delta).

Very good points. I thought maybe I was the only one that didn’t get great results from expedia.

Gwen
Gwen
10 years ago

I recently had a lot of success with Priceline’s bargaining service. I was looking for a round trip ticket from Philadelphia to San Jose, CA over fourth of july weekend. The cheapest ticket I could find, on Southwest, was around $500 and neither of my flights were non-stop. With Priceline, I was able to get two non-stop flights on United for $330, and that includes taxes! The only adjustment I had to make to my plans was that I wanted to fly into San Jose, CA and ended up flying into San Francisco Airport. If you need a ticket, give… Read more »

kenny
kenny
10 years ago

Don’t forget to check the airline that don’t give their information to the booking sites like southwest.com ant jetblue.com

Tiffany
Tiffany
10 years ago

Don’t forget about bag fees. Those can throw off the price of the ticket completely. I’ll often pay more for the ticket itself on an airline that does not charge for the 1st checked bag, and always end up paying less for the trip when you add the obscene cost to check a bag round-trip to the lower ticket price…

Jessica @ Life as I See It
Jessica @ Life as I See It
10 years ago

As odd as it sounds I have gotten better prices buy two one way tickets rather than one round trip ticket. I’ve done this 3 times and it has been about 33% cheaper than any round trip ticket I could find online.

Elisa
Elisa
10 years ago

What I like about kayak is that you can monitor a fare for a few months before making a decision. Not to mention, they send you an email when your fare goes below a certain price! I like that!!! I’ve found that for longer, out-of-country trips, it is better to book as far in advance as possible, for example, when I’m heading to my home country (Trinidad) for Christmas, about 8 – 10 months or so in advance, the tickets can be as low as $400 – $500 dollars on Continental, but as it gets closer, the same ticket becomes… Read more »

Jon
Jon
10 years ago

I have had pretty good success a couple of times using Microsoft’s’ Bing Travel Predictor. It actually did a good job of predicting when the price was falling and when the lowest price would be. Plus it pulls from tons of different travel sites all at once.

Isela
Isela
10 years ago

You made a common mistake that most people do when looking for plane tickets: you need to delete the cookies from your computer every time you make a search. If you do not do it, does not matter if you use another site, you will be getting the same price over and over again unless you delete the cookies…then just maybe you may get a different price.

And also you are missing http://www.farecompare.com is much better than those other sites you had listed.

Saludos desde México.

Tyler
Tyler
10 years ago

As your flight requirements did not have time restrictions, I would also suggest http://www.hotwire.com in your search – depending on the flight, you can get a “bargain” price where you have a guaranteed seat, but are not told the airline or departure/arrival times.

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

Also, you didn’t mention farecast.com, which was recently acquired by Bing (the website redirects). In addition to doing its own check, it also allows you to one-stop check Expedia, Orbitz, etc., AND, most usefully, it uses past fares to predict with some accuracy whether the price is likely to go up or down.

Gayle McLaughlin
Gayle McLaughlin
10 years ago

After you get the best price you can, check out http://www.yapta.com. It will track flight prices before you buy, send you an email when there is a dip in prices, and then after you buy, keep track of prices and help you get a refund if prices go lower.
Thanks for this article!

-matt
-matt
10 years ago

I try to track my flights for at least 2 weeks before purchasing using http://www.yapta.com/ and find out which days are best to buy that particular flight. It is amazing how much buying a ticket on Thursday versus a Monday can make (my best was almost a $200 savings for one flight). Note though that different flights often mean different ‘best’ days to buy. I also use http://www.bing.com/ to check pricing history. This is a great way to get an idea of what the best price is going to be. A simple ‘atl to lax’ search then using the Bing… Read more »

Tyler B
Tyler B
10 years ago

Farecast at Bing is excellent IF you’re flying domestically or to popular overseas locales. Farecast doesn’t work for some destinations. Sometimes I use my own routine. It’s not totally predictable, but quite helpful for making an informed decision. First, know (roughly) your dates of travel and try to stick to them. Second, use a site like Bing or Kayak and search those same dates every day, as far out from the departure date as possible. Create an Excel spreadsheet with dates (date of search) as your rows and carriers as your columns. Type in the price offered by each carrier… Read more »

Angela
Angela
10 years ago

I have played the where is the best airfare game many times too. When I can fly SWA they typically have decent fares depeding on what time you are willing to fly. My solution though was to get involved with a home based travel company (won’t mention the name here). I tested it out and found that not only did I save money but I was also entitled to a commission when I travel. The company has no monthly fees just the joining fee so I felt that was worth it.

Nathan Robertson
Nathan Robertson
10 years ago

I am curious about the timing of the purchase; well in advance? Or, purchased at the last minute? I do nto know the truth to this, but I have heard that purchasing tickets from the counter just before the flight is the absolute cheapest way to go.

David W
David W
10 years ago

I find the best method is to basically set a threshold of what you want to pay for tickets. The experiment above kinda proved what I thought for a long time; that the airlines and other travel sites are basically in cahoots and there are no outright astounding deals. So I say I am going to pay X amount for tickets and when prices meet that threshold I buy and don’t worry about if the price goes too much lower.

Kat
Kat
10 years ago

Isela, where did you learn this about cookies? I had never heard that before, that the sites scanned your computer first before giving you prices, to see what prices you got elsewhere? If that were true, why wouldn’t they drop their price by $5 so they can offer you the lowest? This seems like a very invasive process to scan for the cookies.

Paul
Paul
10 years ago

Bing’s travel site is my pick. If you know you’re flying well in advance you can set up your search as an Alert. Then it emails you every day with the price and info on whether you should Buy or Wait based on historical data.

I’ve also found that Tuesday is the best day to buy tickets, they’re usually $70-80 cheaper.

Ris
Ris
10 years ago

I frequently fly the direct route from Chicago O’hare to Austin, TX, to the point that I generally know the times of day they fly out. If I don’t have a hard and fast deadline to stick to (I’m just going for a visit as opposed to for work or a wedding) I’ll buy my ticket very close to the day I want to fly. This only helps if you’re familiar with the route but they want the flight to fill up and I’ve gotten some very cheap tickets this way.

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

Can I suggest that you were looking for a golden bullet rather than a silver one? You found many silver bullets at $329.40. It’s just that you wanted a cheaper price. You found multiple websites that were able to find you the cheapest price available when you performed the search. That’s a win in my book. You, like the rest of us, just wanted to pay less.

Megan
Megan
10 years ago

All of this ignores Southwest and carriers like USA3000. They don’t show up on those search sites and often have the best prices.

Stephan
Stephan
10 years ago

i traveled extensively while studying abroad and noticed just like you did that pretty much all the sites have the same prices. Where i did save money was using airlines that flew to smaller airports outside of the major cities. Flying into Berlin wasnt affordable, but i flew into berlins outer airport and saved a decent chunk of cash.

Preferred Financial Services

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

“If you do not do it, does not matter if you use another site, you will be getting the same price over and over again unless you delete the cookies…” Sigh. One cookie cannot read another site’s cookie. Now, they can set a cookie with their own price and check it if you come back to the same site. I don’t know whether any aggregator site does that or not. But one site CANNOT read any other site’s cookie! -Erica (PHP programmer for many years; built my own content management system and many websites that used cookies) P.S. The comments… Read more »

ncinerate
ncinerate
10 years ago

Another nice way to find cheap airfare is to try out a smaller carrier that’s off the normal grid. For example, Allegiant Air http://www.allegiantair.com/ They don’t fly everywhere, but if they happen to have a flight heading to and from where you want to be (or near where you want to be) it’s a no brainer. I just bought my wife a -direct- couple hour flight from mesa, az, to billings, MT, and spent around 100$ round-trip. Try that on any other airline and you’re going to get a multiple-stop flight that takes half the day, three planes, and nearly… Read more »

JakeIL7
JakeIL7
10 years ago

You have to remember that all these sites (both the airlines and the online travel sites) are querying a database for each airline with prices and seat availability. That is why your search is coming up the same. Remember to look at the total price (some sites omit the taxes until the end) and check southwest.com as they do not permit any other site to access their database. There are a few other gotchas: 1. Make sure you look at what the fees are. If you are using something like Orbitz or Travelocity, they no longer charge booking fees BUT… Read more »

KarenJ
KarenJ
10 years ago

I always stay in timeshares, so can’t take advantage of package deals. I am a major bargain hunter, but have never been able to find any “tricks” to paying less for airfare. Since I have to fly in and out on a Saturday or Sunday, I have no flexibility. I need air for a trip to the DR in January, so I’ll try Bing and see how that works for me. Also, even though it may cost a little less to take one or two stops, it can add significantly to your travel time, causing you to spend almost a… Read more »

Joel Runyon | Blog Of Impossible Things
Joel Runyon | Blog Of Impossible Things
10 years ago

My strategy? Be flexible, book it early and be flexible.

If you can’t book it early, be flexible, book it at the last minute and be flexible =)

Adrianne
Adrianne
10 years ago

What a coincidence. Ive been searching for a good deal on airfare to Italy and have been running into roadblocks. Tickets that are usually 800 are double and we just do not want to pay twice what we normally would and have paid in the past. One option we have been looking at is flying cheaply into Rome and then booking a second flight from Rome to Cagliari (our final destination). Doing it this way is half the price, although we do have the hassle of going through security again (with a baby this is a hassle). Anyone every attempt… Read more »

Cindi C
Cindi C
10 years ago

When I want to go somewhere, especially outside the US, I reverse the search and look who serves that destination and nearby airports (for example I might search for “Dublin area airports” then read the carriers list for each airport the search finds). This helps me find the small carriers that might be serving the region at the large airport or an outlying airport. This adds a little time to my search but since I buy for 4 people at a time it’s worth it. This also helps me understand routings so I can put together an itinerary that the… Read more »

Cely
Cely
10 years ago

I usually do a broad search using farecast, expedia, etc., then book directly with the airline. I think this gives you a bit more recourse in case you need to change the ticket, or have a problem during your travels. In my experience the ticket is also about $10-20 less when I book directly with the airline.

Halby
Halby
10 years ago

I recently needed to get from the Boston suburbs to Kingsport, TN for a “boys weekend”. Kingsport (TRI) is a tiny airport, the cheapest flight I could find from Boston connected through Charlotte (CLT) for $450 rt. Flying rt to Ashville (AVL) was around $300, but would have required renting a car for around $50/day X 3 days, for a total of $450. No help. However, flying direct from BOS to CLT was only $140 rt, and car rental was only $14/day (!). Had to drive 3 hours from CLT to TRI, but I didn’t have to connect to TRI… Read more »

stevesliva
stevesliva
10 years ago

For a recent trip to Hawaii, Expedia, Kayak, and Orbitz were *not* the same price– Expedia was somehow about $100 cheaper than the rest for a flight on United, and this was a situation that persisted for a couple weeks as I was considering itineraries. I coupled the cheaper Expedia fare with an Expedia hotel+flight package, and my round trip tickets and 7 nights hotel (a cheap one) ended up being less than the airfare quoted on other sites. Hotel was essentially free by going with Expedia rather than just booking the cheapest Kayak fare. I did not expect that.… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

My husband and I are trying to find tickets from Houston to Raleigh, NC in August right now, so this article couldn’t have been timed better! My coworker suggested using the Bargaineering at Priceline. Otherwise, the cheapest I can find in on Southwest.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

I’ve heard that those sites track cookies and that if you search and search for airfare it goes up! So before you actually buy, clear your cookies and try again.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Use http://www.vayama.com for international flights. It will give you a good overview of what is available. Usually more flights than say an Orbitz. Also try http://www.bt-store.com for international.
Also, http://www.travelocity.com can be good. I was able to use Chase VISA and get 3 points for every $1 spent. Saved us $100 on recent purchase.

squished18
squished18
10 years ago

I object to the principle of shopping for the cheapest fare. As JD has stated previously on this site, shopping for quality often bears out a lower total cost in the long run. I believe the same principle applies to air fares. A better written article should have focused on choosing the best quality flights. Paying a reasonable amount for legroom, on-time performance, no lost luggage, proper billing, and no unpleasant surprises are all worth it in my books.

Carlyle
Carlyle
10 years ago

One of many reasons why I drive if at all possible.

Raina
Raina
10 years ago

Try farefox.com. Honestly, they always have lower prices than any of the sites that you wrote about in your blog post. Also, I think that Chris Guillebeau will always have some insight into how to get deals on last-minute flights. chrisguillebeau.com

March 8, 2011 to March 13, 2011 comes out at $311.00. Not a huge savings, but still below what your searches netted you.

Mark
Mark
10 years ago

Many times it’s just as important to give advice on how you might NOT get the best deal. Last Fall a co-worker was planning his bachelor party to Las Vegas, and we were checking prices for flight+hotel packages on a site I’d rather not name. We looked on one person’s computer and noted the prices, and then the next day he checked again and found that the prices had gone up. Another co-worker checked on his computer and received the original prices from the previous day. The lesson? Some companies may track your visits to their sites (via cookies or… Read more »

Mark
Mark
10 years ago

And I will echo Erica’s comment about companies not being able to view others’ cookies… I’ve been a Web developer for over ten years and this sort of thing is blocked by all major browsers. Agencies like DoubleClick can capture your behavior across multiple companies’ sites using their own cookies and store that information, but they deliver that data to their clients in aggregate. They may tell United Airlines that 65% of their visitors also visited other airlines’ web sites, but they do not tell them that “Mary Smith visited Southwest after leaving your site and bought a round-trip ticket… Read more »

david/yourfinances101
david/yourfinances101
10 years ago

I’m currently going thru this exact dilemma. And my results were the same. The fares are just about the same everywhere. What I did find is that altering my departure day and reutrn day, and altering the flight times can lead to a reduced price. Looks like a one-week stay is the cutoff for a cheap flight. Anything shorter than that and the fare goes up. Also, flying at off-peak times of the day lowers the fare too.

Court
Court
10 years ago

In Canada, I just found a great site, canadianaffair.ca to book a one way ticket for London (what I wanted) that came out about $500 less than a round trip direct from the airline AND almost $1000 less than a one-way ticket from the airline! It’s perfect timing and now I don’t have to worry about wasting a return ticket I never wanted…

monique
monique
10 years ago

I agree with the poster who said it’s often cheaper to fly in on one airline and back on another…eg I might fly Virgin one way/back Qantas (domestic). I agree look at smaller airlines and look at alternative routes. Last time we flew to the US we went to NY via Tokyo instead of into LA… it did take a few hours longer BUT we saved $1000 a person. I’m on the email lists for lots of airlines (in Australia)and I get their sale e-mails…then I check what’s available for when I want to travel… Being flexible helps..if you’re preapred… Read more »

Zach
Zach
10 years ago

I will usually shop around to a few different sites, but KAYAK is the first site I will always go to. I have bought tickets on there before and they don’t have issues with international flights. Let me explain. When I was living in Sweden, I was looking for a one way stateside and Expedia and Orbitz etc..all seemed to have issues with my departure taking place outside the US. With Kayak I was able to find a flight one way and even lay over in Iceland for 4 days which was amazing. I also have a friend who works… Read more »

Ace
Ace
10 years ago

Sidestep and Kayak have definitely given me a lot of fruitful results in the past. G.E. recommendation to be flexible in terms of timing I think is very important. Here are some additional tips. – Don’t forget about baggage fees. G.E. was talking about an addition $21 in fees, but with many airlines charging $15-$25 PER BAG this can quickly eat up any savings you achieved in booking through the right service. Someone correct me if I’m mistaken, but last I checked Southwest was the only airlines that would give you free checked bags for two bags, with JetBlue being… Read more »

Worsted Knitt
Worsted Knitt
10 years ago

I do what Cindi C does – look at the airport sites and see what airlines fly there. It’s proven to be a really useful method.

basicmoneytips
basicmoneytips
10 years ago

I always check several of these sites if I am looking for a ticket and I cannot see much difference. However, as mentioned, sometimes you can decrease your fare by using multiple carriers, which you cannot do if you go directly to the airline website.

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