Shopping around for cheap plane tickets is only step one as many discount flights have extra hidden costs that can jack up your total bill.
When you’re going on a vacation, the last thing you want is for that trip to drive you into debt.
While that means planning ahead and budgeting for your trip, it also means saving as much money as you can on travel costs. And if you’re flying, that means finding the cheapest tickets possible.
On that front, we’ve got some good news and some bad news.
“Today’s travelers expect to score low-cost plane tickets whenever and wherever they fly. Budget carriers willingly offer more routes around the world with the lowest prices,” said former travel agent and child passenger safety expert Grainne Kelly. “We can also compare the prices of flights with the many different websites available to travelers. With a discounted flight, we assume there will be fewer perks and passenger services, and we’re typically fine with that for the reduced fare.”
But all is not peachy keen in the world of budget traveling. As Kelly went on to explain, hidden fees and added costs can easily erase many of the hard-won savings that one has earned by shopping around.
Finding inexpensive tickets is the first step—and we’ve included many tips in this article to help you sniff them out. But once you’ve booked your flight, you’ll have to keep an eye out for additional ways to save. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself back at square one.
“When should people book tickets for travel? Don’t wait!” said Scott Wainner, founder & CEO the travel search engine (and app) Fareness.com. “In general, the longer you wait to book, the more expensive the airfare will be. Try to plan in advance and snag plane tickets as soon as you can.”
“Try to be open-minded when booking travel and don’t get attached to one specific travel date and location,” said Wainner. “Look around at prices, and then determine when and where you might want to travel to.”
In this regard, sites like Fareness can be a useful tool for consumers, as they provide an easy way to compare ticket prices across different airlines and travel days.
The more flexible you are on your dates, your connections, and your departure times, the better able you’ll be to find your cheapest option.
Try to get a bag checked for free.
Checking bags is going to cost you extra, especially on a discounted flight. But Kelly disclosed this helpful tip to try and get around paying that additional (often hefty) fee.
“If you have a larger carry-on and later decide after you go through security that you would rather check it, try to get it checked for free at the gate,” she advised.
“Wait until everyone else boards the flight with their carry-ons, as the plane will likely run out of room for bags and the attendant will then check your carry-on suitcase for free for you.”
“Always ask at the gate if there is room or if they should check your bag, as they are usually happy to check it. It makes it easier for them to ensure everything else fits in-cabin storage.”
Watch out for hidden taxes.
Whenever you’re making any large purchase, you should doublecheck that the price stated doesn’t include any hidden costs—including taxes. The same holds true for airline tickets.
“It’s never fun to realize the quoted online price does not include taxes until after you hit the purchase button,” said Kelly. “Taxes can tack on several hundred dollars, resulting in your ‘discounted’ ticket not being as discounted as you assumed.”
Are some days better than others?
This is one of the areas where there was a bit of a disagreement between Kelly and Wainner.
“The best time to buy domestic airfare is on Tuesdays around lunchtime,” said Kelly, citing the fact that airline sales typically only last three days or less and tend to publish on Tuesdays. “Also,” she added, “the best days to travel are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday.”
While Tuesday has a reputation for being the best (aka, the cheapest) day to fly, Wainner disagreed with this assumption. “There really isn’t one day that is best to book,” he said. “Prices tend to fluctuate so it’s important to search with enough time to get the best deal.”
Wainner went on to describe how Fareness was designed to make comparing dates easier:
“We are the first and only site that enables consumers to select a specific city or an entire destination category along with a wide range of dates for travel to see the lowest prices trip options with a single and quick search,” he said.
Travel in the off-season.
If you’re flying at a time of year when everyone else is looking to travel, you’re probably going to end up paying more. Luckily, the reverse is also true.
“Travel in the off-season, as you can get better deals for flights and hotels. Excursions and local sites also offer cheaper prices,” said Kelly. “Another perk is that you don’t have to fight as many tourists and can experience a private beach or more entertainment options.”
As for flying on a holiday, Wainner said that this wouldn’t always mean snagging a cheaper flight, but that it was certainly worth checking. And even when you’re open to flying on a holiday, he stressed the importance of checking the surrounding dates to ensure you find the cheapest fare.
Prepare for a longer route.
If you’re trying to save money on a flight, you might find yourself faced with a choice between picking the cheaper flight or the shorter one.
“Many discounted flights include at least one layover, sometimes two, depending on the destination,” said Kelly. “So it will take longer to get to your endpoint and may include layovers that are lengthy.
But for those travelers looking to save money, a layover might be well worth it! And if they’re willing to get up in the dead of night to make it to the airport, even better! According to Kelly, many discounted flights are offered at off-peak times, which means that they depart early in the morning or very late at night—sometimes both.
Always read the fine print.
Similar to keeping an eye out for added taxes, savers should carefully read the fine print and the terms and conditions to sniff out additional fees or costs.
“There could be charges for baggage, carry-ons, dimensions/weight of your baggage, snacks/meals, and more,” said Kelly. “Be prepared ahead of time so you’re not hit with sticker shock at the airport. This is how the airlines make up for missing revenue.”
She went on to cite a rather innovative new way that airlines are starting to smuggle in extra costs. Luckily, this is one fee that’s easy to avoid.
“Some airlines now charge to print boarding passes at the airport,” she said. “Save yourself the fees and print them at home.”
“Confirm every letter is correct and reconfirm the travel dates,” she continued. “Changing even the smallest item can result in an additional charge.”
Lay the groundwork for upgrades.
Wouldn’t you love to fly in first class without having to pay first-class prices? If there are available first-class upgrades offered at the gate, you might well be able to!
There are a couple of things you can do to maximize your chances at scoring one. The first is a long-term bet, while the second is something you can do the day of.
“What’s your best advice for scoring a free upgrade on a flight? Be loyal,” advised Wanner. “Try to pick an airline and stick with it. The best way to score upgrades is to be a loyal flier and one with a lot of miles. So if you stick with one airline as much as possible, you have a better shot at the upgrade.”
Kelly, meanwhile, suggested that you’ll better your chance of moving to first-class by dressing the part. “Poise yourself for an upgrade by dressing in business casual,” she said. “If your flight is oversold, you could potentially get upgraded to first-class, but your attire will play a part in the airline’s decision.”
She also mentioned one thing that you definitely shouldn’t do: “Avoid asking for an upgrade at the ticket counter, as service staff are bombarded with upgrade requests and this might actually hurt your chances.”
Seat assignments not guaranteed.
If you’re not particular about where you sit, you’ll have an easier time finding cheap fares.
“Most discount carriers do not offer seat assignments, but rather operate on a first come, first serve basis,” explained Kelly. “So plan to be at the gate early to queue up for a decent seat next to your family or travel companion.”
Keep an open mind.
“Check nearby airports, ones that you might not normally fly out of, as prices might be cheaper,” advised Wainner. “I’ve been known to save $500 just by flying into a different airport!”
$500 in exchange driving an extra hour or two to another airport? Worth it!
Bring some snacks.
“Most discounted carriers no longer include meals in their flights and expect you to pay for them onboard. The standard soft drink and bag of pretzels will most likely not be included either,” said Kelly.
“Plan ahead and pack yourself plenty of snacks and other food to tide you over until you reach your destination. Remember that you can’t bring liquids through security, so you’ll need to purchase them near your gate or onboard the flight.”
Remember: Saving money on air travel starts with finding cheap tickets, but it doesn’t end until you walk off that final flight.
Grainne Kelly is a former travel agent and mom of two who revolutionized the child travel industry by inventing BubbleBum: The world’s first portable, inflatable car booster seat that weighs less than one pound and can deflate in seconds, making it simple to throw in a backpack or tote bag. It’s ideal for everyday rides and carpooling as well as road trips, fly-ins with car rental, taxis, Uber/Lyft rides. Its compact design allows for three across the back. BubbleBum is the 8x winner of the IIHS Best Bet for Car Booster Safety award.
Scott Wainner (@scottwww) is a serial entrepreneur with a 20-year track record of creating successful companies. At age 16, he built a hardware reviews site called SysOpt, and later sold it for $4M at age 21. He then created a business called ResellerRatings to help consumers shop safely online, which reached $6M/year in revenue and had 2,000 online retail customers. Wainner sold ResellerRatings to Answers.com in 2012 for $34M as the sole shareholder with no debt. Passionate about travel from an early age, Wainner conceived the idea for his next venture based on his own personal frustration to find the best fares. In planning all of that travel, he became frustrated with just how hard it is to find and compare airfares, and how many hours and days it takes to search for the many destination and date combinations needed to find the best fares. Fareness.com (@fareness) was launched in September 2016 as a solution to this problem, revealing fares across hundreds of dates and global destinations at a glance.
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