Red's Deal

Getting the Cheapest Plane Ticket

I'm a bigtime cheapskate. I hate paying full price on anything that can be had for less -- especially in something as fast-and-loose as an airline ticket, where the guy sitting next to me could be paying half the price I am.

The process I outline here is what I use myself. It may not give you the absolute cheapest ticket, but it'll get you to within probably 5%, which is good enough for me. The steps here take about 20 minutes from start-to-final-purchase.

For starters you should be aware that I consider all airlines to be more-or-less the same. In this algorithm, I assume the best flight is the cheapest flight. If you insist on flying a specific airline, you should register to get their emails and follow the specials religiously -- that's how you'll strike your best bargains in that particular piece of the world.

The technique I describe below is primarily for flights within the US, but you can use modified versions flying almost anywhere in the world. Everything here assumes you have a credit card (don't forget, you can use a frequent flyer (FF) credit card and rack miles that way for free flights).

It may all sound like a hassle and part of the deal is figuring out how much your time is worth. But to give you some idea of what's possible, the Re:D office manager used these tricks on a flight that Suttonhoo took and managed to trim $400 off an original $650 fare.

Use these 7 (+1) steps, you too could get something very close to your lowest airline ticket price.

  1. Before you do anything, set up an email account that you use exclusively for travel shopping. I like gmail because it's free, the search engine works well and it's easy to set up rules that allow you to treat incoming mail in different ways. As part of this non-step, you should also sign-up as a FF on any airline you might fly and give them this email address (some airlines run email only specials). In addition, you should go to both Hotwire.com and Priceline.com and register there as well. If you haven't set up an email address just for travel, do it right now -- I'll make sure to be here when you come back.

  2. Make a decision where you can fly from and to. If you're traveling to/from a densely populated area you'll have a choice of multiple airports. For example, I live in the Bay Area of California and can fly in-and-out of SJC, SFO and OAK. It might be that some airports aren't as convenient, so you need to figure out if a price difference would make you pick one airport over another. In my case, I have a prefer SJC, so I'll only fly out of SFO or OAK if I can get those tickets for $35 less. Also you'll want to get a feeling for how flexible your travel dates are, that can play in as well (nearly always you'll get a cheaper ticket if you can stay over on a Saturday night).

  3. Check your travel email address to see if there's any flight specials you should be aware of. Chase or research any fares that sound like possibilities to get a feel for those numbers.

  4. Use a travel search site for the flight you'd like to make. I use SideStep.com (which is now the same as Kayak.com). Sort by price and you'll get a very good idea of what the current lowest prices are.

  5. Look for any airlines that fly the route you're interested in, but don't show fares in your travel search listing. Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue (and American Airlines now too, I think) don't publish on these sites, so you'll have to snoop them individually.

    Right this second you have the lowest normal published fare. If you're worried about the exact times of your flights, and you need a refundable ticket, you can stop here and you've got yourself a pretty good deal...

  6. ...If you aren't concerned about exact times, you can now advance to this step. Go to Hotwire.com and enter your data (Sidestep offers this comparison as a check-box in their search, but I like to do it independently so I can be assured that everything's getting searched exactly the way I want it). You might come back with some flights that don't tell you airline or flight times, but do tell you prices. These might be cheaper than the cheapest thing you've seen so far (be sure to add in their service fee to your calculations for price).

  7. Figure out what the lowest price is (or prices if have multiple possible airports). Go to Priceline.com and bid considerably less than your cheapest price for the flight you want (say, half of cheapest leg you've seen). Priceline has recently changed their algorithms and instead of saying, "No, son, that's too cheap," they bring Captain Kirk back saying, "We can't sell you a ticket for that price, but we can for this."

  8. Now you have your cheapest price. All things being equal it will probably be Priceline. Once you click the "buy" box on there you've made a deal on a non-refundable ticket, so make sure that's what you want to do. Double-check everything about the offer.

Congratulations, cheapie, you're flyin'!

Things to note:

  • The earlier you book, the more likely you are to save money.

  • If you're flying repeated legs, look at wrapping the tickets as nested roundtrips. For example, let's say you are making this roundtrip (SFO -> LAX on Monday; LAX-> SFO on Friday) for two weeks straight. You should set up one flight as SFO -> LAX roundtrip, leaving SFO on the first Monday and returning on the second Friday. The second flight should be LAX -> SFO roundtrip, leaving LAX on the first Friday and returning on the second Monday. This way you still fly the same number of legs but get two Saturday night stay overs, instead of none. You'll see your ticket prices plunge.

  • If you're flying one-way, take a look at the round trip ticket price, sometimes it's cheaper.

  • I don't like Priceline because I don't like that a company knows what the lowest price is, but they just won't tell you. I love Hotwire because they have good deals and do tell you. It's better now that Priceline counter-offers, but whenever I get similar bids (within $5), I take Hotwire over Priceline. I've had interactions with both companies (both as a user and as a focus group participant); I like the Hotwire people, I've thought the Priceline people were swine. (But not piggy enough for me not to use their service, I guess.)

  • If you're extremely likely to change your travel plans, take a close look at Southwest. They still don't charge for baggage and if you change your flight they give you full dollar credit to use on any future flight. That's right, no penalties for a change in plans and you don't even have to call and tell them you won't be there.

  • Priceline says that your flights will leave no earlier than something like 06:00 and touch down no later than 22:00. My experience has been that when I do win a bid, about 85% of the time I depart in the morning before 08:30 (this might have to do with the fact that I'm often traveling from the west coast of the US). You definitely shouldn't count on that being the case, but be aware that it's possible.

  • On Priceline, if you need to be at your destination in the afternoon, say 14:00, you need to travel the day before.

  • Tickets purchased on Priceline and Hotwire might not give you FF miles. If this matters to you, don't use those services. But even if they say "no," it doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Once you have your ticket try entering the FF number on that airline's Website, if that doesn't work, try it at the check-in kiosks at the airport (I've done this several times with Priceline/United Airlines tix).

  • If you need a rental car, keep track of the deal Priceline tries to give you as an add-on after a successful bid. Occasionally they are extremely good.

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