Even for so-called expert travelers, booking airfares can be a nerve-wracking and budget-busting experience these days. Where once a little bit of know-how routinely resulted in airfares so low you almost couldn't afford not to travel, more recently airline mergers, capacity controls and route reductions have made finding ultra-cheap airfares much more difficult.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do to avoid paying more than you'd like for an airfare, but there are a few things you can try to keep from paying more than you should. To help you sidestep the most common errors that even sophisticated travelers make, here are seven mistakes to avoid when booking a flight.
1. Don't forget about alternate airports.
A large number of major cities both at home and abroad have more than one good-sized airport, but by searching only on a specific one, you won't see better fares to other gateways that are nearby and often offer lower airfares. A couple of classic domestic examples are Newark vs. JFK, or Long Beach vs. LAX; overseas a good example is Gatwick vs. Heathrow in London.
To get these airports into the mix, choose the "All Airports" option shown on many booking and airline sites that includes a city code instead of an airport code. So when traveling to or from New York, Expedia/Kayak/etc. allow you to use NYC instead of JFK or EWR, and will return fares from all airports. In Los Angeles, the code for all airports is QLA (instead of the more limited LAX).
In the case of densely populated areas, you can sometimes fly into an entirely different city altogether. For example, San Diego is about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles (depending on traffic, of course); that makes it a somewhat reasonable alternative to Los Angeles, especially if your trip takes you to areas south of L.A. like Newport Beach, San Clemente and the like. Similarly, Chicago and Milwaukee are about 90 miles apart, and Tampa and Orlando are separated by about 85 miles.
If your booking site does not allow this (for example, CheapFlights.com seems to accept NYC, but not QLA), or you're not sure what your other options are, another way to discover nearby airports is to do a search on Kayak and select the "Include nearby" option, which will show you a list of airports near your original one and include them in your search. You can find a few of our favorites in Fly Here, Not There: The Best Small Airports in the U.S.. Or try this cool chart from Johnny Jet that lists nearby airports in the U.S. by miles from your departure or destination airport; very helpful.
2. Don't forget to clear your cookies.
Full disclosure: I have not been able to duplicate this myself, but I have read so frequently about folks doing tests on their own over the past few years that the anecdotal evidence that your browser history can lead to higher airfares has become pretty compelling. In fact, even the type of computer you use can affect what fares and options booking engines show you; Orbitz CEO Barney Harford admitted a few years back that the site began recommending different (usually pricier) hotels to Mac users than to PC users.
Many travel experts have reported that airlines and booking engines are using cookies to show potentially higher airfares on routes that you have searched often. So if you are researching an upcoming trip from Chicago to Paris and have checked airfares on the route frequently in recent days or weeks, the site "knows" you really want these fares, and "guesses" that you might be willing to pay a bit more for them.
Some even think the airlines are tracking IP addresses, which is your unique address on the Internet that allows computers to find you. Beating this trend would entail changing not only browsers, not only computers, but also your location. You can give this a try if you are desperate -- search at home, then again at work or a local coffee shop before booking (or vice versa) -- but otherwise clearing cookies, using a different browser or even checking on your mobile device vs. your computer is a good place to start.
You can skirt the IP issue by using your phone as long as you make sure it's not using your home Wi-Fi connection -- connect through your phone provider and you'll have a different IP.
3. Don't book on days when prices are higher.
Unless you are booking travel for work, it is obviously most convenient to shop for and purchase airfares over the weekend, when you have more free time. However, FareCompare has found that the best time to book U.S. domestic flights is Tuesday at 3 p.m. Eastern. This varies somewhat for international flights, as might be expected with airlines based in a variety of countries with different fare updating patterns, so you will want to be a bit more vigilant for international fares. We recommend checking prices throughout the week.
4. Don't fly on Friday or Sunday if you can avoid it.
Airlines tend to jack up airfares for Friday and Sunday flights for the simple reason that these are the most likely days leisure travelers and vacationers are going to travel. The number of travelers also gets pushed up on Fridays by business travelers racing home, so this can be a particularly pricey day.
FareCompare notes that the cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. For the purposes of leisure travelers, flying out on a Wednesday can be tricky, but perhaps if you can swap a late Friday flight for an early Saturday flight and come back Monday morning, you can take advantage of off-peak pricing to some extent. For more on this, see The Best and Worst Days to Fly.
5. Don't forget to check multiple websites.
Like a lot of us, over the years I have accumulated some booking engine loyalties, but they're not strong enough to keep me from checking fares on multiple sites, especially as I get closer to making the actual booking. Each site employs slightly different search algorithms, and as a result can sometimes return different prices -- and flight times and combinations as well, which certainly adds value. When you add in layers of complexity like possible cookie tracking and more, it just makes sense to shop around a bit, especially right before you buy.
To make this easier and semi-automated, you may want to set up multiple email alerts too. It can take significant time to check a whole heap of sites every day, but if you sign up for fare alerts you'll be notified when a price goes down.
6. Don't overlook the in-flight experience.
If you find yourself choosing among fares that are reasonably close, you may want to check whether one airline has better entertainment options, seatback screens vs. overhead (or none), a better seat layout, more legroom or better meal service. Price aside, these are all factors that can make a big difference in how pleasant (or miserable) your flight might be. Sites such as Hipmunk.com and Routehappy.com can help you discover potential snags that you might not have anticipated, and that will give you more upon which to base your flight choices than just price.
7. Don't ignore other costs, both human and financial.
Sometimes the money you save on a cheaper airfare is absorbed almost instantly by other expenses you incur. When booking your flights, try to consider any fees that might accrue on what looks like a cheaper flight. Easy examples might be the need to stay in an airport hotel for a really early flight, higher baggage fees on a discount airline or gas and tolls to a more distant airport. Other potential costs might include an extra day in a kennel for your pet or more expensive airport meals on the road when saving by booking connections.
When considering human costs, think about time away from work, away from family or even just away from your own bed. A good friend recently booked his family on a very early flight out of San Antonio near his home, and at around 7 a.m. posted a photo to Twitter of his bleary-eyed teenage daughter dragging herself through the airport. The caption: "Thank you to my daughter for getting up at 3:30 a.m. so we could save $30 on airfare." Ouch.
If you have any tips for must-do or must-avoid tactics when booking airfare, please let us know in the comments!