How to land the best fare

Last reviewed: June 2011

Regardless of which airline you choose to fly, there's no reason to pay more than you have to. And as you may have noticed if you've bought a ticket in the past year, airfares are up. Ticket prices rose about 20 percent between March 2010 and March of this year, based on the 300 domestic routes tracked by Harrell Associates, an airfare-consulting company in New York.

Though cheap seats may be harder to come by, you can still save money by taking a few simple steps:

Work the Web

More than 70 percent of our survey respondents who booked their own flights did so directly on an airline's website. A smaller number, 55 percent, compared fares on other websites before they chose an airline. For the best possible deals, we suggest you cast that wider net. While the airlines sometimes post great fares on their sites, you might be able to find lower prices elsewhere.

Start with websites that allow you to compare the deals from multiple airlines, such as Airfarewatchdog, Bing, FareCompare, and Kayak. Also try travel-agency sites, such as CheapTickets, Expedia, and Travelocity.

If you're a bit more adventurous, websites such as Hotwire and Priceline.com are another option. Hotwire has set prices, while Priceline lets you bid on tickets. Neither indicates which airline you'll be flying or whether your flight is nonstop until you've bought your nonrefundable ticket. To bid on Priceline, first check what other sites charge for a flight you want and then bid 50 percent less, suggests George Hobica, founder and editor of Airfarewatchdog.

Finally, before you book a flight you've found online, check the airline's site. You might see more flight choices for a similar rate, and you'll rarely have to pay booking fees. If you want to fly on Southwest, you'll have to go to Southwest.com, the only site where its flights are available for booking.

Be flexible

Shifting your travel dates by a day or two will often allow you to nab a much lower price. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are generally the cheapest days to fly, says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare. He also suggests that you avoid Sunday, when people often return from vacation and cheap seats are hard to find. If you're traveling with a group, consider splitting up your party when you're searching for deals. "If you have four in your group and there are only two cheap seats available, online reservation systems will give everyone higher-price seats," Seaney says. Instead, check the price for one, two, and three seats on the plane, as well as for all four, and then book accordingly.

Check multiple airports

When you use price-comparison sites, specify the city you want to depart from, not the airport. Most sites will then show you the flight options for any of that area's airports. Often leaving from one of those other airports will be significantly cheaper.

Sign up for promo codes

If you're a member of an airline's frequent-flyer program, you can often sign up for special promotion codes, which provide discounts from 10 to 50 percent. Promo alerts can be sent to you via e-mail, RSS feeds, Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook, and other channels. But the deals expire quickly, so you'll have to act fast. The trade-off? Your e-mail inbox can get flooded with offers that don't interest you.

Book early or late

You generally don't need to book more than 90 days in advance. Booking about 21 days before your trip will usually get you a good fare. Price-comparison sites often let you sign up for alerts that will tell you when prices drop on a particular route. The best time to shop? Many sales are posted late Monday or early Tuesday. But bargains can appear at any time, so keep searching, Hobica stresses.

Use social networks

Many airlines tweet deals. Two examples are @FrontierSale and @JetBlueCheeps, where we found a $10 one-way fare from San Francisco to Long Beach, Calif. But seats are limited. By some accounts, @UnitedAirlines' Tware fares sell out within 2 hours.

Did you know?

Ninety-three percent of our survey respondents booked or bought their plane tickets online. Only 3 percent did it by phone, 3 percent at a ticket counter, and 1 percent at a walk-in travel agency.