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During the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, airfares in the U.S. fell to their lowest levels in two decades—down a whopping 32% on average from the year before, according to the travel industry research firm Cirium.
With more people vaccinated and ready to travel now, airfares are once again on the rise. Domestic airfares in May 2021 were already up by 9% compared with the previous month, and international fares skyrocketed by 17% at the same time. If you've been waiting to book a trip, you might have already lost out on the biggest bargains, but that doesn't mean you're completely out of luck. You can save money on airfare in several ways, including by remaining flexible with your dates and times, comparing prices, and even carrying an airline credit card. Here are some ideas for ways you can save money on your next flight.
Plan Your Trip Early
When it comes to planning your trip, the early bird gets the best deals.
The major airlines usually load their flight schedules nearly a year in advance. If you can plan that far in the future, you might find good airfares before flights start booking up. But this is no guaranteed way to save, and you also run the risk of schedule changes down the line.
According to Hopper, an airfare prediction app, your best chance of securing the lowest airfares are between 25 and 150 days before travel, so you don't have to be the world's most organized planner to score a bargain.
The so-called "prime booking window" for many international destinations was between just two and four months out, according to the most recent Annual Airfare Study by travel booking site CheapAir.com. Certain places, like Europe and Africa, were subject to deals even further in advance, so it won't hurt to start looking as early as possible.
Stay Flexible on Travel Dates and Times
Airfares fluctuate not only by season, but also by days of the week, and even times of day. So stay flexible on travel dates and times to secure the best flight deals.
Best Times of Year
Certain destinations boast year-round attractions, but many places are busier only at certain times of year. Winter in the Caribbean, for instance, or summer in Europe. If your plans allow, try to visit during quieter months for your destination since flights during those times are likely to be cheaper.
As a benchmark, flight search site Skyscanner found that January, after the holidays, is the cheapest month to fly domestically followed by September and October, when kids are back in school. On the other hand, prices tend to spike in July.
Best Days of the Week
According to deal site Airfarewatchdog, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are typically the cheapest days of the week to fly. That's because leisure passengers tend to aim for the weekends or later in the week. If you can arrange your plans to travel midweek, you might save a bundle.
Best Times of Day
You might also focus on the times of day other passengers are not as willing to book. Think the first flight in the morning, or the last one out at night, or even an overnight "red-eye" flight. Taking one of those might even help you save on a night's accommodation since you can sleep on the plane.
Compare Flight Prices
Before you purchase tickets, do a little comparison shopping, and pay attention to any price changes on the flights you're interested in booking.
Third-party websites like Skyscanner and Google Flights allow users to track airfares over periods of time. Using calendar searches, you can get an overview of price fluctuations by weeks and months, and then see if there are certain dates, times, or even specific airlines and alternative airports where you can fly and save money.
You might be able to save some cash by setting an airfare alert on a site like Kayak too. Log in to your account and enter parameters such as origin and destination, specific dates or months, and whether you prefer to fly nonstop. You can also just set your search to "flexible" with a price range, and see what comes up. If airfares go down after you perform your search, the site will notify you and you can book at that point.
Pay With an Airline Credit Card
- More rewards: Though it's not instant savings, many airline cards accrue bonus points or miles on flights with their carrier that you can use for a reward ticket in the future. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card earns 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases, but just 1 per dollar on all other purchases. So by using it to pay for your flights with the airline, you can earn double your rewards compared with other purchases.
- Companion tickets or discounts: Some airline credit cards offer discounted companion tickets or flight credit vouchers that can save you money.
- Checked bag discounts: One of the best benefits any airline credit card can offer is saving you money on checked bags. The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card is among the most generous in this respect. Cardholders plus up to eight companions on the same reservation traveling on Delta are eligible for a fee waiver on their first checked bag each. Terms apply. That amounts to savings of $30 per person, each way. So if you were a family of four traveling together, each with a checked bag, you could save $240 on a round-trip journey.
- In-flight savings: Now that many airlines make you pay for things like meals and drinks as well as Wi-Fi, you might want to carry a credit card that offers a discount on them. The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card, for instance, rewards cardholders with 20% back on in-flight purchases made with the card for drinks and Wi-Fi in the form of a credit card account statement. It's not a huge amount, but every dollar counts!
Join Frequent-Flyer Programs
It's easy and free to sign up for airline frequent-flyer programs, and doing so can help you save on flights.
- Promotions and discounts: Airlines often send emails to mileage program members with deals and discounts for flights from their home cities when fares go on sale. This way they can be among the first to access cheap tickets.
- Earning award miles: These days, airlines are posting award sales with tickets that require as few as 2,500 miles each way. You don't have to take too many flights to rack up numbers like that, so by joining a frequent-flyer program, you can start socking away miles for your next award trip.
- Achieve elite status: Requirements vary by airline, but if you fly enough to earn elite status, you can usually count on benefits like free checked bags and the ability to select more types of seats in advance. That can save you money on the fees airlines now charge for these services.
Get Prepared for Summer Travel
Summertime may see airfares going up along with the temperature, but there are still plenty of ways you can save money on flights. Stay flexible in terms of travel dates and timing, join the frequent-flyer programs of any airlines you fly to start earning rewards, and even consider carrying a co-branded airline credit card for the money-saving perks many of them confer. You can find personalized options geared to your needs by using Experian CreditMatchTM.