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[2023] How to Save Money on Flights: 9 Tips to Pay Less

Updated: Jun 13

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None of us get to vacation as much as we'd like to. Crazy schedules, lack of time off from work, and costs are just three reasons that prevent me from traveling as much as I'd like to.

So when my wife and I do travel, we try to spend as little as we can on our transportation to save our budget for the destination. Naturally, it frustrates me when I book a flight, only to discover later that the price dropped.

Luckily there are some tips you can follow to minimize what you pay on your upcoming flights. Here is how you can save money when you fly.

Pay less for your air travel

Before you can actually find cheap deals, it is important to dispel some notions regarding air travel. Did you know that many of the the common strategies you've heard about for years have no truth to them? That's right, this means that things like...

  • Booking your flights on Tuesday

  • Scheduling flights at least six months in advance

  • Using a different web browser

… hold no weight!

Do you know why these strategies are wrong? It is because airline pricing models are far more complex than any of us realize. And none of us, except for a select few, truly know how it works. And even for those that do, any number of variables can impact prices at seemingly any point.

This said, I follow a number of best practices in order to pay as little as I can on my flights. Among my favorite tips and tricks include:

  1. Build points, rewards, or air miles

  2. Use a flight scheduling aggregator

  3. Consider hidden-city ticketing

  4. Be flexible with your travel dates

  5. Travel at off-times

  6. Book with Southwest

  7. Consider alternate airports

  8. Embrace basic economy

  9. Fly budget airlines

Related: Pros to TSA PreCheck

1. Join airline rewards programs

Joining rewards programs can be a great way for you to save money in the long-run on your flights.

Personally, I have a hot and cold relationship with airline point and mile programs. Sure, they are great when you're able to redeem free flights. But getting to this point (no pun intended) oftentimes requires you to take one or more actions that I'm not crazy about.

Depending on the airline, you may be bombarded with credit card offers to build points/miles more quickly. Most of these airline credit cards carry annual fees, which I am not crazy about.

That said, I am a member of the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Program, since my points never expire. I just won't pay more to fly Southwest to build points if a cheaper or more convenient itinerary is available.

2. Use a flight scheduling aggregator

I always use a flight aggregator before I book a flight - here is why. I am not loyal to any one airline, and I book my travel based on a combination of low fares and itinerary convenience.

There are tools out there to help you view itineraries from multiple airlines and times all in one place. Because let's be ho

A couple of my favorite tools to use in this space include CheapOair, Google Flights and Skiplagged, which specializes in helping you to identify any hidden city ticketing opportunities. Speaking of hidden city ticketing...

3. Consider hidden-city ticketing

Hidden-city ticketing is the process of booking a flight with the intent of

Skiplagged is my favorite site to help me identify these opportunities.

For example, consider a flight from Chicago to Orlando that then continues on to Houston. In some instances, due to complex airline pricing models, it is possible that booking your flight from Chicago to Houston could be cheaper than Chicago to Orlando.

Hidden-city ticketing practices would tell you to book this flight and then just walk off in Orlando. It can save real money, though there are a couple of downsides you may want to be aware of:

  • Unsurprisingly, airlines hate it, since it costs them revenue. It is possible, though unlikely, that you could get banned from an airline if you repeatedly do it.

  • You can't check bags, or else they'll end up at the destination that you booked your flight to.

  • If your flight ever got diverted due to weather, you will be rescheduled to go to the final destination on your ticket, potentially bypassing the airport you intend to leave.

  • You'll need to book this as a one-way flight, since the remainder of your reservation will be canceled when you no-show your second leg.

4. Be flexible with your travel dates

Okay, so this tip is easier said than done, but being flexible with your dates can be an excellent way to save money, and potentially a lot of it. Let's consider a popular vacation route from Boston to Orlando in April, when many schools in New England have their spring break.

When this article was written, the cheapest flight I could find on Saturday, April 15th - the start of vacation week - was $257 one way, incredibly expensive for this short haul flight route. But moving your trip by just week in either direction yields completely different pricing. Don't believe me? You can fly that same route on April 8th for $62, or on April 22nd for $99.

Unfortunately, this advice cannot always be leveraged, especially by those with children in school, but it is definitely worth a try if you can be flexible.

5. Travel at undesirable times

I hate waking up and staying up until ungodly hours, but I always try to fly at these times, particularly in the middle. Not only are you less likely to encounter mechanical delays, particularly if the plane has been there overnight, but you may also find lower fares at these off-peak times.

I took a trip to Florida in March, and took a flight home that did not depart until around 11PM. And while being up much of the night wasn't any fun at all, the savings allowed us to spend an entire extra day in Florida.

And while these pricing differences could be due to other factors at play, I've noticed that early mornings and late nights tend to have their fair share of deals.

6. Book with Southwest

Let me be clear from the onset. I am not loyal to any one airline 100% of the time. But I really do like Southwest's flexibility on pricing. Did you know that if your Southwest flight fare drops after you book that you can receive a credit for the difference?

That's right!

While not as good as a partial refund, you will be able to apply this credit towards a future flight, and that is worth something.

To get your flight credit, I recommend that you:

  • Use the Southwest app's "Change" button

  • Lookup your same flight

  • Check the price

If it has dropped, the flight will show a cost difference in the negative. From here, just select this flight and collect your credit! Money saved!

7. Consider alternate airports

I'm willing to drive to or from a further airport in order to save money, depending on the circumstances. Typically, I'll only do it to save $100 or more. And if it something you'll consider, I highly recommend you set some guidelines before you act.

For instance, in addition to saving $100, I've set some other rules to abide by:

  • I'll drive up to two hours either to or from an airport, but not both

  • I don't want to drive through any major metropolitan areas

  • I'll only do it if I can book a direct flight

  • It has to save me money, even after booking a rental car or scheduling an alternate mode of transportation to get me to my destination

Remember to think a little outside the box too. I frequent the Fort Myers, Florida area pretty frequently and am used to flying into Tampa from time to time. But last year, I decided to check airfare into Fort Lauderdale - clear on the entirely other coast of The Sunshine State.

Little did I know, Fort Lauderdale to Fort Myers was actually a shorter drive than going to Tampa, and the route also carried less traffic.

I typically do this manually, but you don't need to.

For example, Google Flights has a helpful map functionality. Simply click on the map, enter your home airport, and see the possibilities available to you!

8. Embrace basic economy

Domestic flights average less than three hours in length, particularly if you're not flying from coast to coast. With these short flights comes the potential to embrace discomfort to save money.

It feels like airlines charge for everything this day, including checked bags, carry-ons, seat assignments, and even snacks.

My advice? For shorter flights, embrace the discomfort and see how much money you can save. Opt for basic economy, which oftentimes comes without a seat assignment. Bring your own snacks and drinks onboard and treat your flight for what it is - a ride to where you're headed.

9. Fly budget airlines

Finally, along the lines of my last point, consider flying budget airlines if you can.

Do look for hidden fees before you enter your credit card number, though, since budget airlines tend to price their services a la carte for things like seat assignments and bags. You'll just want to make sure you're still saving money over flying with a traditional carrier like American, Delta, or United.

Best budget airlines in the United States

There are a number of budget airlines in the United States. And while none of them are necessarily on the top of my list to fly, I'll try just about any airline once. Among the budget airlines I've tried or will try include:

  • Frontier

  • Spirit

  • Avelo

  • Breeze

  • Allegiant

  • Sun Country

Some also loop Southwest and JetBlue into this category, but in my opinion, their fares don't always support being looped into this category.

Personally, I've flown Frontier and Spirit, and was much more impressed with the Frontier experience.

Best websites to find and book cheap flights

Whenever I'm looking to find cheap flights, particularly as my target travel day approaches, I rely on a variety of sites to help me find the right flight for me. I like to use these sites to help me find good flight deals:

  1. CheapOair

  2. Priceline

  3. Expedia

For whatever reason, I still tend to book my flights directly through individual airlines, but you should do whatever you feel most comfortable with.

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About Nathan Zarcaro

Nathan Zarcaro is the founder of The Student Debt Destroyer and is passionate about personal finance related causes.  A 2018 graduate of Providence College's Liberal Arts Honors Program, Nathan studied Finance, and worked for one of the world's largest asset management firms before starting his own consulting practice.  In his free time, Nathan enjoys playing golf and traveling with his wife Brigid.

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