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Online booking has made comparing airfares and booking travel easier than ever before, but it's easy to get hit with hidden fees and unexpected charges. Gone are the days of free meals and complimentary bag checks. Airlines now charge extra for almost every basic service from pillows to cans of tomato juice. Companies make a hefty profit on all these up-charges: over three billion dollars in baggage fees alone each year. Ask yourself these questions before booking your flight to keep more of your hard-earned vacation money in your pocket or carry-on luggage

When should I start looking for flights?

Fares for air travel are highly variable, changing several times every day based on complicated algorithms the companies use to estimate demand. On average a single flight can change over 200$ from its highest and lowest price. For a family of four, that can really add up! Timing your purchase to the lower end of the price range is key, so start pricing fares once you have rough dates in mind. Pick several times of day to peek at the cost to get a sense of what the range seems to be over the course of a week or two. Eventually, you’ll see a low-end price: be ready to purchase immediately. You may not get the absolute lowest fare possible, but knowing you’ve saved several hundred dollars per ticket should help you feel comfortable with the final cost. Holding out for an even lower price doesn’t guarantee the fares will continue to drop, and you may end up paying near the top end of the price range, or worse, not being able to get a ticket for the dates and location you need.

When should I buy my tickets?

Of course, just looking at prices for one or two weeks doesn’t mean you’re getting a reasonable fare if you’re looking too early or too close to your travel dates. According to studies of the patterns in price fluctuations over the course of a whole year, the average best time to actually purchase air travel tickets was about seven weeks before departure. Booking more than five months in advance means you’re paying the airlines ideal price, or their starting bid, which will decrease as they try to fill empty seats. Booking within two weeks of your departure will be your most expensive option, with prices increasing exponentially each day closer to take off. Aim to scope out the price ranges over time, and purchase the final tickets between three and four months before your trip.

Which days are the cheapest for air travel?

Monday and Friday flights tend to book quickly at higher prices to get business men and women to meetings and conferences around the country. Fridays and Sundays are the most popular domestic travel days for vacationing tourists. Because pricing is based on supply and demand, avoiding these high traffic days can give you access to the fares that are priced to move. If your dates are flexible and you are able to travel on weekdays, consider Tuesday and Wednesdays your best options. Generally, these days have the lowest domestic fares, saving an average of 58$ on a week-long round trip. If you must travel for a long weekend, search fares for a Saturday through Monday trip. They should be priced lower than Thursday through Sunday.

These are simply the historical patterns of prices, but the fare setting algorithms update in real time based on interest and availability. That means these trends aren’t universally true and you might find a lower fare on one of the traditionally busier days of the week. To truly get the best deal, it helps to be flexible with your dates and look at many alternatives for arrivals and departures.

Can I get deals for holiday travel?

Unfortunately, if your family has holiday time off, so does everyone else. This drives up demand for air travel and increases pricing. Spring Break, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Labor Day are all very popular times to travel, so if your budget is tight, consider increased prices for those trips unavoidable and make sure you’re following every other cost saving tip.

The same advice applies to seasonal destinations. If you can be flexible about destinations or dates, flying in the off season will be significantly cheaper, but your activities on vacation may be more limited. A good middle ground is to travel on the cusp dates between seasons. May tends to be a good time to visit beach locations before schools let out for summer and the heat draws people to swim. Early January can be a great time to grab tickets to snowy resorts while most families return to work and school after the holidays.

How much is my luggage going to cost?

Baggage policies and fees vary widely by airline, so there’s no single answer to this question. While a (very) few airlines still offer one complimentary checked bag for domestic flights, most charge between $25-50 per bag and impose weight limits on each item. Look at the policy details for your flight BEFORE you finalize your ticket and consider the cost of adding baggage fees to the total cost. Sometimes the variation in baggage fees makes a different airline the more affordable choice.

To estimate your baggage costs, consider how you travel and try to minimize the number of bags you have to pay for. If your airline charges extra for same-day baggage fees, make sure you pay for this add-on ahead of time to keep the cost at a minimum. Remember that car seats, strollers and any adult assistive devices can be checked for free by federal law.

Should I join a loyalty club for the discounts?

Many major airlines offer “members clubs” that include perks like complimentary baggage checks, free in-flight meals, or access to special lounges within the airport All this for a fee that can range from 50-100$ annually. Usually, this is separate from any frequent flyer account you may hold, but members do sometimes earn double miles as a bonus. If you travel often, and especially if your employer will be covering work-related travel on this airline, a members club might be a great choice. Waivers on baggage fees and comped dining can offset the cost: just two checked bags could pay for the membership, essentially meaning your baggage is now free for any other flights that year. However, these types of clubs are meant to keep you loyal to a single airline even if the fares they offer aren’t the lowest. They certainly improve the flying experience and can be a serious discount for certain types of travelers, but not all.

Can we get a group discount for my large group?

Sadly, the group discount concept doesn’t apply to airfare. Low fare seats, special promotions, or off season discounts are all in short supply. Trying to book a large number of seats at once actually changes the algorithm and indicates a spike in demand, raising the prices available to you in real time. Keeping your browser in incognito mode, search for your full group first to make sure there are enough total unbooked seats available on the same flight. Then reset your search and try different combinations of pairs and trios. This allows you to snatch up as many of the discounted fare seats as possible meaning some of your tickets are more expensive than others, but the overall cost for the group will be significantly lower.

What happens if I see a lower price after I’ve booked?

If you see a better fare within 24 hours of buying, you should be able to call the airline directly and ask them to rebook your flight under the new price. Don’t cancel and buy a new ticket on your own, as fares may shift during the process or the airline might charge you a fee that negates the savings.

Can I get deals on social media?

Some airlines use Facebook and Twitter to offer flash sales on deeply discounted flights or to extend a specific discount to their followers. These are great if you already have a sense of what price range you want and are able to book immediately. However, these discounts go quickly, so book immediately if you’re confident it’s a good deal for your trip.

Is a direct flight always best?

Your time has value, so for once-in-a-lifetime trips like a honeymoon or international vacation, getting there fast and efficiently is worth a modest cost increase. For most trips, though, you can save money by booking a multi-stop itinerary with layovers. Many airlines also sell affordable one-way flights, so you can also consider using multiple airlines to find the combination with the best fares.

Where is the best place to search for low fares?

Looking at airline websites individually takes a long time and doesn’t always get you the best fare. Bookmark a few of the metasearch sites like Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity while you’re doing research on the fare ranges. Other useful sites include Kayak, SmartFares, TripAdvisor, JetCost. Each offers slightly different sets of search tools but all will help you find low fares fast.

Should I fly from my home airport?

If you are close to a small regional airport, or within a few hours of another major airport, feel free to check prices for all these options in addition to your normal major airport. Many destinations also have multiple airports within proximity of your desired vacation spot. If you find a great deal on airfare, it may be worth it to add a little distance to either end of your trip. Just be sure to consider any car rental, airport shuttles, or parking fees that would be added to your final cost comparison.

Finding a flight is one of the most stressful parts of scheduling a trip, but planning ahead can help you avoid being surprised with fees when you’re trying to get on the plane. Following these tips can save you money and keep your air travel as stress free as possible.

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