5 Ways to Fly Without Breaking the Bank

Airplane

Whether it’s for that great vacation in the Bahamas, a business trip to China, or visiting family back home in Alaska, we all have to fly sometimes, but for those of us on a budget, here are five helpful tips on how to save money while traveling.

1. Fly standby

Flying standby can be a pain, but the financial savings can really make it worthwhile if you have the right attitude about it — and if you’re flying with the right airline. Some companies will still allow you to buy a standby ticket, but others have different policies, so it’s vital to read up on each airline’s rules ahead of time and before you buy tickets.

When flying standby, you basically just show up and hope there will be an extra seat on your flight — but there is no guarantee. If you miss the flight, you hop on whatever outgoing plane is headed to your destination next, assuming that one has an open seat. It’s important to note that sometimes this isn’t until the next day for flights that aren’t as popular.

This cheaper but riskier way to fly really does require a certain level of Zen. If you don’t get on a plane, you don’t get on, and there’s nothing you can do about it — which means you’d better not have a tight schedule. Buying your ticket to Aunt Velma’s wedding on standby is not a good idea. Be prepared for a long wait: bring a book, a movie, a snack, maybe even a pillow and breakfast for the next day. Standby tickets can be an incredible savings for those airlines that offer them, though. According to FareCompare.com, tickets for flights within North America, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico cost $50 for same-day standby on earlier flights. Not too shabby.

A second way that travelers can fly in this manner is more based on luck — when an airline fills up its seats, sometimes they’ll need to bump people. By volunteering to give up your seat for a slightly later flight, you can earn yourself vouchers toward future flights.

2. Look for tickets on Kayak.com and other fare comparison sites

Airline ticket prices can vary a great deal based on where you’re going and what company you fly with. Sometimes smaller airlines are cheaper, and sometimes round-trip tickets are cheaper — but sometimes the opposite is true, or an anomaly will surprise you.

That’s why it’s always smart to compare ticket prices, whether you do it yourself through various websites or via a third-party portal like Priceline’s (NASDAQ:PCLN) Kayak.com. Everyone has a different preference for travel sites, but Kayak has a simple and user-friendly interface without quite so many boxes and words floating everywhere.

Kayak also allows you to search for multi-city flights, useful for if you’re not traveling in the usual there-and-back pattern. Users should be careful, though, not to buy a cheaper ticket only to find that you’ll be spending more on baggage, or that the layover is 18 hours long and will mean spending extra money on a hotel.

3. Browse prices in private mode

When browsing fares online, you may notice you were quoted a price of $260 one second but an hour later, when you go back, the cost appears to have gone up. The reason for this may lie in websites and airlines tracking your computer’s cookies — or it could just be due to price fluctuation from the way that seat prices are estimated, or any number of other factors. The validity of the cookie tracking “myth” is debatable and highly disagreed upon, but in the end, it doesn’t hurt to be careful.

As USA Today points out, deleting your browser cookies every time you want to peruse prices is a pain, which is why shoppers would be smarter to cover their bases and use a private or incognito window in their browsers. Columnist Rick Seaney wrote in an article earlier this year that the cookie-tracking idea is bogus, but he did say that airlines are working to make it a reality. It’s also notable that a second columnist from USA Today has voiced the opposite opinion, saying that cookies are indeed being monitored.

4. Buy tickets at the right time on the right days

It may seem obvious that ticket prices aren’t going to be at their cheapest the day before you want to fly, but the rules for when to purchase a flight are a little bit more complicated than that. It isn’t just that you want to buy tickets far in advance of the flight date: You also want to buy them at the right time on that day. Furthermore, you’d better not try to fly out on a Friday or a Sunday if you’re trying to save — those tickets tend to be more expensive.

According to FareCompare.com, the cheapest day to fly is a Wednesday, so when buying a ticket, aim for hump day. And when purchasing your ticket, you should try to shop on Tuesday around 3 p.m. Eastern — you’ll find more discounts. The cheaper tickets are pulled off of airline websites on Thursday, though, so shopping later in the week and on the weekend isn’t a good idea.

The CEO of CheapAir.com said that seven weeks beforehand is the optimal ticket-buying time for domestic flights. Buying one, two, or three days ahead of time is the worst way to save money; buying t0o far in advance is also fiscally irresponsible, with 208, 209, and 210 days ahead of time the next worst days. Holidays are the exception to that rule — as far in advance as possible is your best bet.

International flights are a bit different, as well. Again, too early and too late are both bad, but 11 to 12 weeks ahead is about right if you’re leaving the country.

5. Take advantage of American Express and other loyalty reward cards

I know, I know, we hear it all the time over the intercom before and after flights — but there are good deals and bonuses that an American Express (NYSE:AXP) card comes with. This is especially true if you have a card for a specific airline: Bonus miles and free tickets can really help the next time you have to spend money on a flight, and upgrades are always a nice bonus, as is skipping some of the longer lines to board at the gate.

Ultimately, consumers can’t always schedule flights in just the perfect way, and it’s not always worth a long layover for a few dollars off your ticket. However, knowing the tricks never hurts. Have any other tips on how to save? Feel free to share your knowledge in a comment — your fellow flyers will thank you.

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