In 2016, I spent 36% of the year traveling and logged over 22,000 flight miles. All but two of those flights were short domestic trips, so I've fine-tuned my methods for buying plane tickets without spending the entire travel budget on airfare. Today, I'm sharing the tools I use to find the right ticket, buy smart, and track flights for my next adventure. Before you book your next trip, try a few of these ideas!
FINDING YOUR FLIGHT
SkyScanner is an app and website that will search the internet for the best-priced flights that fit your criteria, and it's always my first step when I'm shopping for a flight. If you’ve read my post on the best tools for online shopping, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this is the ShopStyle of airfare because it aggregates flights from across the web and filters them through your preferences.
The app is a quick and easy on-the-go search and tracker with plenty of filters to help you narrow your results by stops, airlines, flight times and more. You can save certain routes to your Watched list, and set price alerts for specific flights. Maybe you have a long weekend coming up and want to take a quick, inexpensive trip? Use the Explore feature to find fares from your city for particular dates - you can browse the whole world!
It's always good to get a second opinion, and that's why Google Flights is my next stop when I'm airfare shopping. It will never be as glorious as the late, great Bing Travel Price Predictor, but it's still your friend in flight search. On their Price Graph, you can see how a flight’s price varies across time, seasons and days of the week - it's generally true that flights are cheapest exactly eight weeks before departure, but there are always exceptions. Google Flights will also suggest the Best Flight for your search, and let you know if changing your schedule can save you money.
They're constantly working at becoming more mobile-friendly and releasing new features. A recent release can warn you about impending price increases for flights you're watching, but it isn't consistently available yet. If you're curious, the I'm Feeling Lucky option works a lot like it does in a regular Google search - click and it will choose a destination for you based on your search history!
While SkyScanner and Google Flights are pretty similar, I always use both when I'm flight shopping - the SkyScanner app on my phone and then Google Flights on my laptop.
If you have a destination in mind and you’re just waiting for a price drop before you book a ticket, this is the site you should use to set Low Fare Alerts. I always have alerts set for visiting my friends and family across the country! Pick a route (like ORD-MSY), wait for an email, and then pounce - these deals can vanish quickly. You may eventually find yourself getting too many fare alert emails but if a certain route is clogging your inbox, just unsubscribe from that one. You've learned that deals for that route are frequent!
Airfare Watchdog is also a good way to learn average prices for certain routes. Sometimes $400 is a pretty good deal (like flying from Chicago to Seattle), and sometimes $200 is crazy-high (like flying from Chicago to Minneapolis). Knowing the usual prices and the common price drops for your route will make you a more informed consumer and help you understand your options. Now you can choose whether it's worth the extra cash to go to NYC over an expensive date range, or worth waiting for the fare drop a few weeks later.
BUYING YOUR TICKETS
Hide from Cookies
Yes, those generally helpful, slightly creepy, chocolate-chip-less internet cookies are haunting your flight search. Some sites will show you higher airfare prices if they can tell that you’ve been watching the tickets as your travel date gets closer. Help yourself out by opening a new Incognito window when you're getting ready to make a flight purchase. This makes you an anonymous browser, so you’ll see the lowest price without having to clear your cookies. I usually just do a quick check in Incognito, then go ahead and buy.
Credit Card Rewards
If you have a credit card, you're most likely earning rewards as you spend. If travel is high on your priority list, let your card work for you by opting into the incentives and rewards your card offers like miles, points, free upgrades or free checked luggage.
If you're loyal to a particular airline, it might be best to use their credit card. But don't forget to compare them to travel cards that aren't connected to an airline - their points and miles can often be more valuable when it's time to redeem them. My personal favorite is the Barclay Arrival Card, because it seems to be the best travel rewards card for everyday spending. It really pays off if you frequently travel, fly, and eat out, so it's worth a little hunt to find a card that will reward your lifestyle and help your work towards your next adventure.
Third Party Sites
Third party sites (like those that Airfare Watchdog directs you to) can be great for finding fare sales, but I never recommend buying through them. It’s not worth the potential headaches and, in my experience, you can always get the same flight at the same price directly from the airline. The only time it might make sense to buy from a third party is if your itinerary involves multiple airlines - which I also wouldn't recommend, unless it’s absolutely necessary for your budget or itinerary.
MANAGING YOUR ITINERARY
The calendar on your phone is getting much better at syncing with events (like flights) in your inbox, and airlines' apps are getting better at being one-stop-shops for checking in, boarding passes, and keeping you updated on changes and delays. But if those aren't quite cutting it for you, try FlySmart. It's not the prettiest app on my phone, but it keeps a pulse on all the details from any flight on any airline: updates, changes, alerts for check-in and delays, gate information, and airport maps.
I use it not only for my own flights, but for friends and family, too! If I’m picking them up at the airport, I don’t have to wait for them to text me from the tarmac that they’re delayed or that they’ve arrived early. If I’m the keeper of their flight itinerary while they’re out of town, I like the peace of mind of having it with me on my phone.
I hope these are useful for you on your next flight search - I know they've saved me time and money on nearly every trip.
Let me know your favorite travel tips, or what you'd like to hear more about!