At AutoSlash, we're all about saving money. And as frequent travelers ourselves—most of us to the tune of between 50,000 and 100,000 miles flown per year—we're all about saving money on flights, too.
It's a little harder to get discounts on flights than on rental cars up front. Unlike the rental car industry, the airlines don't publish coupons and don't give discounts for being members of various organizations But there are few tricks to knocking down the price of your fare.
Booking A Cheap Ticket
The first—and by far, the biggest—trick is to be flexible. Traveling on different days, especially ones that business travelers typically aren't crowding the planes, can help a ton. Check different locations, too: flights to, say, Baltimore might be significantly cheaper than flights to Washington Dulles, and Baltimore's airport is only a short and inexpensive train ride away from the nation's capital.
You can even be like us here at AutoSlash and let the fare tell you where to go. Tools like Google Flights (and the advanced-level search-but-not-book system it's based on, ITA Matrix) let you search lots of things at once. I'm currently based in the Northeast (as is AutoSlash founder Jonathan), and it's nice to escape cold northern winters. These tools let me search a wide variety of dates and cities. When something like a $130 round-trip from Philly to Tampa pops up for a week in January—or a $330 round-trip from New York to Mumbai—I know where and when I'm going. (Those are real fares I've flown on!)
The second trick is to hack your airfare. While not something you might want to do more than a few times a year (the airlines don't like it), it can sometimes save you a ton of money. One of our favorite sites is Skiplagged, which makes finding and booking such hidden-city fares easy. Another site we recently discovered, Kiwi, also attempts something similar. (Kayak also has a tool they call "Hacker Fares," but it only searches for times when booking two one-way tickets is cheaper than a single round-trip.)
When you find an amazing airfare, be sure to pay attention to which airline it's on. Some airlines publish deceptively low fares, and you'll end up spending a lot of money for basic things we take for granted, like choosing a seat in advance and bringing a carry-on bag onboard. Be sure to check out our article on basic economy and ultra-low-cost carriers .
Third, listen to people who know about cheap fares. The Flight Deal regularly shares great fares, and they tend to only post ones that are really good, so it's safe to sign up for alerts from them. AirFareWatchdog is another one that occasionally shares some great deals, although the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower. Follow @MileValueAlerts on Twitter for some of the very best fares we see, but be prepared to book quickly—the fares he finds are often gone within minutes, not hours.
Also, make friends with the frequent flyer community. Most of our cheap deals come from friends sharing them with us—stumbling across them ourselves is relatively rare. Most of us on the AutoSlash team met each other on the FlyerTalk forums, where hundreds of thousands of super-frequent flyers share tips and tricks and even some great fares, and asking questions and making friends with those folks is the best way to make your travel budget shrink.
Fares Can Drop!
Like rental car rates, airfares change all the time. Sometimes, the fare will drop after you book your ticket. (There are lots of sites that try to help you predict when it's best to buy your ticket, like Google Flights,Kayak, and Hopper.)
Unlike rental car reservations, though, once you buy your airline ticket, you're usually locked into that price (since you can't cancel without a change fee).
Like we mentioned in our Six Reasons To Avoid Basic Economy Fares article, we're huge fans of Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and Southwest. Not only do these three carriers avoid nickel-and-diming you, they're also the friendliest airlines when it comes to snagging a lower price.
Southwest's policy is the most liberal. Since Southwest doesn't charge change fees at all, if a cheaper fare comes along, simply change your flight (even if it's to your same flight), and you'll be given a travel credit (or refund, if you're on a more expensive fare or using award points) for the difference.
Alaska Airlines is almost as good—for now. Since Alaska only charges change fees within 60 days of departure, if a lower fare comes along more than 60 days before travel, just go through the normal ticket-change process and book at the lower fare. A bonus compared to Southwest: with Alaska, your credit can be deposited into your MyWallet account, which makes it super easy to use for your next flight. Unfortunately, Alaska will be ending the 60-day change policy this fall, so this will only work for the next few months.
Even within 60 days of departure, Alaska is still friendly: while you can't change to a different flight fee-free even if it's cheaper, you can still claim a credit if the fare drops on your exact flight. Just go to the Alaska site and fill out the airfare guarantee form , and you'll get a credit back to your account.
JetBlue's policy is the least flexible. If the fare drops within 5 days of purchase, you can claim a credit. After that, there's a $75 fee on cheaper fares (it may be waived on more expensive fares) to claim the credit, so it would only make sense to claim one if the fare drops more than $75. (Mosaic members can still get price drops after 5 days by canceling fee-free and rebooking.)
With other carriers, it's often technically possible to claim a credit, but you'll pay a full, normal change fee that can exceed $200. You'd have to stumble over a pretty big fare drop to make it worth the bother.
One other note: we always book our flights through Priceline. Why? We've written a whole article about that, but their super-flexible cancellation policy (up to 96 hours after booking in some cases) can make it easy to rebook at a lower price if one shows up within a day or two after you book.
Tracking Your Fare
But here's an AutoSlash secret: Google flights works amazingly well to track fare drops.
It's not really designed to do this, but all it takes is a few clicks and you've tricked it into telling you when you can save some money. Here's how to do it:
Book your flight on Alaska, JetBlue, or Southwest (just as you normally would).
Go to Google Flights and enter your origin and destination cities and your dates, just like you were searching for a new ticket, and find your existing outbound and return flight and click to select them.
Click Track price.
You'll get an email from Google if the price drops on your flight.
Here's where it gets even more fun, though. The above way will only search your exact flight for price drops. That's great for some situations, but what if you're flexible? Often, you can even change flights
The key is: narrow down Google Flights to only search for what you want alerts for.
Maybe you're booked on the 5:00 AM Alaska flight from Seattle to Los Angeles, but you'd be OK one at a better hour if it dropped in price, but not one too late that night. Simply use the Google Flights filters to only show Alaska flights and restrict the times.
Enter your origin and destination cities and dates on Google Flights.
Instead of selecting a specific flight, filter out the other airlines and limit the times to what you want to search for. You might also want to use the Price slider filter avoid alerts about higher fares.
Slide the Track prices slider to on.
You'll get an email from Google if the price drops for any of the flights in your search.
Once you get that email, Deals We Like has a nice series describing exactly how to claim your credit:
- Book an Alaska Airlines Flight and the Price Dropped? You Can Get the Difference Back!
- JetBlue Flight Went Down in Price? Get a Credit Back!
- Changing and Canceling a Southwest Ticket
While it's not quite as hands-free as using AutoSlash to track your rental car rates, it's free money and worth a minute of your time to set the alert.
And once you've booked your flight, don't forget to use AutoSlash to automatically search thousands of coupons and get the best price on your rental car plus track your car for rate drops—all for free!