If you’ve tried to book a flight lately, you might have noticed a couple of things: The prices are looking high, and the options are looking limited.
This isn’t particularly surprising. On Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration says, it screened 2,167,380 passengers at airport security checkpoints, the highest volume since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, airlines have not yet resumed offering as many flights as they did pre-pandemic, after making schedule reductions over the past 15 months. The result is higher demand and lower supply ― ergo, expensive tickets.
“As of June 2021, it seems flights have rebounded back to their pre-pandemic pricing,” said Rocky Trifari, travel blogger at The Rocky Safari. “In some cases, I’m noticing flight costs are even higher than they were during the summer of 2019. I believe prices are especially expensive at the moment because of all the last-minute travelers who are looking to take advantage of the summer to travel now that many domestic and even international destinations have reopened.”
Although air travel is generally pricier now compared to a year ago, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a deal. Below, Trifari and other experts share their advice for securing cheap flights.
Prioritize cost over date and destination.
“To book cheap flights, you must make cheap flights a priority,” said Darci Valiente, a senior member operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights.
“All too often when people think about booking a vacation, they first sit down and think about where and when they want to go,” she explained. “Imagine you and some friends are planning to take a trip together and it is decided, ‘Let’s go to Greece for the last two weeks of August.’ As a result, when you go to book your flight, you’ll likely end up paying $1,200 round-trip for one ticket to Athens for your dates.”
It’s common to prioritize destination and dates over cost, particularly for families limited by school holiday schedules. But if you’re able to take another approach, Valiente advises beginning your search by asking, for example, “Where are there cheap flights to out of our airport?” and “Are there any destinations that are cheap in August?”
“In [this] scenario, you might find that there are $480 roundtrip fares to Rome available for the first two weeks of August,” she said. “You and your friends book these tickets instead, have a great time in Italy, and save $720 per person on airfare.”
Use flight search engines.
“If you’re looking to find affordable flights, you should always use a source that aggregates flights from numerous airlines so you can compare the rates,” Trifari said.
This can be useful for search purposes even if you intend to book through the official carrier ― though you may change your mind.
“You may find certain websites can shave a bit off from the bottom price, scoring you an even better deal than had you booked directly through an airline’s own website,” Trifari said.
He advised checking out websites like Skyscanner, Expedia, Google Flights and CheapOair to score good deals. Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of The Points Guy, told HuffPost he recommends Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire and CheapTickets as well.
In addition to comparison-based search engines, there are other tools aimed at helping travelers find affordable options.
If you’re willing to give up “some of the comforts of travel such as taking direct flights, you can use booking tools like Skiplagged to discover connecting flights that have layovers to secure a better deal,” Trifari suggested. “The trade-off is that it will take you longer to arrive at your destination, since you may have to stop at one or two other airports along the way.”
Set up alerts.
Not everyone has the time to check different websites for flight deals every day, and even if you do, sometimes limited offers appear and disappear quickly. That’s why it’s helpful to set up alerts with your platform of choice, so you receive an email or push notification when prices fall.
“Setting up price alerts will ensure you’re the first to know as prices drop with any additional discounts or added supply,” said Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert for Skyscanner. “You can mark a flight you’re interested in, and Skyscanner will email you whenever the price goes up or down.”
Valiente similarly plugged Scott’s Cheap Flights as a way to get email alerts when bargains pop up. Google Flights, Kayak and other travel websites also offer fare-change notification features.
Be flexible with airlines.
“If you are trying to find a good deal, be flexible with alternative dates, airports, and airlines,” Kelly said. “Consider flying out and in on different dates, in and out of different airports, and flying on a different airline that you might not typically fly.”
Flexibility can involve booking with airlines you don’t usually fly, or even combining carriers within the same trip.
“It’s not just a summer fashion trend. Mix-and-matching the airlines you choose to fly with can seriously cut costs,” Crossey said. “Fares don’t have to be booked as returns. Look at flying out with one airline and back with another to save money.”
He noted that Skyscanner has tools that calculate the cheapest month to travel to certain destinations, and lets users search within a given month to find and identify the most affordable dates.
“Flight prices are all based on supply and demand. Because some dates are more popular than others, prices will vary,” he said. “Consider traveling a day before or a day after your original departure dates. Flying on less popular days of the week is always cheaper.”
If carrier flexibility isn’t giving you great options, it may be time to dip into the miles you’ve accumulated from previous airline loyalty. You might also have vouchers from flights you had to cancel due to the pandemic, or even credit card reward points.
“If you’re not still finding any deals, consider using a travel voucher or see the what the flight would cost in points vs. cash,” Kelly said. “Remember ― never pay more in points than you would in cash!”
Don’t ignore less popular places.
Of course, many destinations are popular ― and therefore expensive ― for a reason: They’re wonderful to visit. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only places where you can have a great vacation.
Ask the seasoned travelers in your life to share their favorite under-the-radar destinations. Search for lists predicting future hot spots, follow travel bloggers’ recommendations or even spin a globe and see where your finger lands.
“Generally speaking, the best deals out there are to places where travel is now open, but consumer demand doesn’t match the number of unfilled airplane seats,” Valiente said. “Inversely, places that are open but have high demand means fewer unfilled seats on planes and higher fares.”
If international travel options are looking too pricey or risky, consider the many amazing destinations within the U.S.
“The year 2020 saw new destinations rise in popularity as corridors shone a light on some surprising gems,” Crossey said. “Swapping your usual break in Cancun for Florida or California could be an unexpected delight.”
Be mindful of your fare options.
Try to be thorough when exploring your options and making comparisons. Sometimes the deals that seem the most affordable involve hidden fees or an inflexibility that may end up costing more in the long run.
“Booking basic economy fares or ultra low cost airlines might be more expensive than a regular fare when you factor in fees, and also that basic economy tickets no longer get free changes,” Kelly said. “Cheap can be expensive!”
Similarly, you might find a rare opportunity to fly business class without having to splurge. A couple of months ago, Valiente was able to snag business class tickets to Athens this summer for the same price an economy ticket is now going for.
“While we have seen economy fares stabilize in the last couple of months, business and first class fares remain much lower than normal,” Valiente said. “This is largely due to the lack of company-paid trips and in-person business meetings. If you are looking to splurge or normally upgrade to regular economy, be sure to check the cost of non-economy fares as well. The price may be closer to the economy than you might think.”
Crossey emphasized the importance of flexibility with change policies, especially since we’re still living through a pandemic.
“In the past, being flexible with travel might have meant flying at anti-social times to get a good price. But now with a constantly changing travel landscape, it’s important to know what the change policies are on flight tickets and accommodation,” he explained. “Choosing these flexible options can sometimes be much cheaper than package deals and, of course, allows for a personally tailored trip.”
Pay attention to when you’re booking.
“For domestic flights, it is usually best to book one to three months in advance,” Trifari said. “For international trips, I find three to eight months is best.”
He also recommended avoiding Friday or Sunday flights if possible, since weekends are the busiest days for airlines, and prices tend to rise with the demand.
If you know you’ll be traveling during a period of high demand (like Christmas and New Year’s), start searching sooner. The key is to be ready to pounce, because good deals often don’t last.
“Airfare is highly volatile and can change minute to minute. The price today is not necessarily the price tomorrow,” Valiente said. “To get the best deals, start by looking at tickets several months out and monitor what the average fare to your destination tends to be. From there, decide a number you are comfortable paying and book once that number pops up. Could the price drop even lower? It could ― but it could also go much, much higher.”
She noted that most airlines offer full refunds for cancellations within 24 hours of booking through their websites, so you should be able to snag those tickets and then use that day to research if you can make the trip work.
Valiente also suggested “beating the rush” by booking a trip to an in-demand location that hasn’t yet announced its intention to reopen to travelers. Many airlines are still waiving change fees on economy tickets, so you can always delay your trip if the destination is still mostly closed as your travel dates approach.
“If the destination you want to visit is already opened, look to see if there are any last-minute deals,” she said. “In normal times, last-minute travel is quite inflated. However, without business travelers in the air (with companies who will pay whatever the cost is), there have been more last-minute deals than usual this past year. We don’t expect this trend to last.”
Additionally, there’s some debate about whether searching for flights on booking websites indicates higher demand, and thus pushes up prices (or if those sites might specifically show you a higher price due to your perceived purchasing intent). If you’re concerned about this, consider using incognito mode as you browse, or borrowing someone else’s device.