The Infrequent Flyer’s Guide to Finding the Cheapest Flights in 2017

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Susan Shain explores Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

So you’re not a frequent flyer who racks up all those miles and points and rewards. You’ll never be a member of the million-mile club.

You don’t belong to some airline’s Elite Premier Advantage Gold AirMiles Alliance Priority Rewards program. You’re not a super-savvy travel Jedi who can bust out some kind of airfare hack and hop a flight to Abu Dhabi for the price of a pack of Tic Tacs.

We get it. You don’t do this a lot. You just need to book a flight. How do you get the best deal possible?

It sure seems complicated. Airfares are going up this year. With so many travel websites out there and so many “travel hacks” being circulated, it’s hard to know where to start.

We’ve got your back. We’ve collected the most up-to-date strategies, information, websites and smartphone apps for finding the cheapest flights. They could make a huge difference in the price you end up paying.

First, a caveat: There is no one single website that always has the best deal. That’s just not how this works.

“Everybody else would be out of business overnight,” travel expert Gilbert Ott tells London’s Daily Mail newspaper in a recent article debunking travel myths. “Not all sites display all airlines or fares, and occasionally one undercuts its competitors.”

Our bottom line: Book early. Don’t book tickets on a Friday. Be as flexible as possible given your circumstances. Finally, try a number of digital tools to scout out the best prices.

Here’s our step-by-step guide to scoring insanely cheap flights:

Decide When You’re Going to Fly

There’s a reason why most of us fly home from our trips on Sunday. Vacation fun time is over, and we have to drag our sorry carcasses back to work.

But if you have any flexibility here, avoid flying on Sunday. It costs more.

Research from the website Marketwatch and the flight search app Hopper found that you’ll likely pay 10% more to fly on a Sunday. They found that the average price of a round-trip domestic flight was $264 on Sundays compared to $241 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

The time of year: The same research found that you’ll pay 30% more to fly in July or December compared to the cheapest months.

As always, it’s a matter of supply and demand. Average ticket prices were about $360 in December and July, compared to about $280 in January, February and April. There’s a handy month-by-month chart you can view here.

Which Day of the Week NOT to Book Tickets

You may have heard, “Always get your plane tickets on a Tuesday.” Don’t believe the hype.

“There’s no magic day,” Ott writes. “If there was, no one would ever book tickets on any other day.”

Having said that, avoid buying tickets on Friday. The Wall Street Journal found that tickets bought on Friday tend to be 13% pricier than on Sunday.

Why? Because fare sales typically expire by Friday. The available cheap seats sell out during the week. And airlines hike prices at the end of the week to see if competitors will match them over the weekend.

Your best bet may be to buy over the weekend. “Knowing that many price-conscious travelers are shopping on weekends, airlines often post their lowest prices on Saturdays and Sundays,” the WSJ reported.

That’s not a magic bullet, though. “There are far too many complications for simple advice like ‘book on Sunday’ or ‘book on Tuesday’ to be valid across the board,” Time magazine reports.

Book Your Flight Early, but Not Too Early

Book early. “The sweet spot is about two months before departure,” the WSJ reports. It says the best-priced tickets for a flight within North America are sold, on average, 57 days ahead of time. Travel website CheapAir puts it at 54 days, with the week before and after that 54-day mark being the best time to strike.

That’s all well and good, but when should you buy tickets for your specific trip? To get advice on that, start with this service CheapAir introduced last year. Based on historical data, it determines how many days in advance you should book a flight to your particular destination.

Don’t book too early, but make sure not to wait too long either. “Booking too early is generally bad, but booking too late is likely worse,” Time magazine advises.

Armed with that information, set up a fare alert by typing in your route and chosen dates on the Hopper app or on a website like Airfare Watchdog.

Hopper predicts whether fares on a certain route will go up or down and alerts you when your ticket price has dropped to its likely cheapest point. Of course, some cheap fares are red-eye flights or have long layovers, and you may not want those. So in late 2016, Hopper added filters that let you remove stops, lengthy layovers and no-frills unbundled fares from your searches.

Airfare Watchdog monitors airline websites for deals and sends you email updates about them.

Make Use of Google Flights

One of the most useful digital tools for finding insanely cheap flights is Google Flights. When you’re planning a trip, it gives you the flexibility to check lots of dates, times and destinations.

When advice website Lifehacker asked its readers for their favorite travel booking sites in 2016, nearly half voted for Google Flights, praising its user-friendly interface.

It lets you:

  • Look for round-trip or one-way tickets.
  • Choose economy, business or first-class tickets.
  • Pick a preferred airline.
  • Avoid red-eye flights if you choose.
  • See if it’s cheaper to fly to a different airport near your destination.
  • Know how much you’d save by flying later in the day or on a different day.

Once you choose a flight, Google links you to that airline to book your tickets.

Check Out Other Online Resources

Before you click that “buy” button, you might take a look around at the competing travel sites at your disposal. There’s a ton of big-shot competitors like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline, but don’t limit yourself to the “big boys.” Here’s a sampling of lesser-known sites that offer something a little different:

Hipmunk: Like Google Flights, it’s a free, easy-to-use flight search engine. Instead of showing you walls of text, its appealing design visually displays departure and arrival times as it’s comparing flights. It filters its search results using a category called “agony” — how difficult your trip will be considering the combination of cost, duration and number of stops. It also links to Google Calendar.

Skyscanner: Yet another flight search engine, it searches for hotels and rental cars, too. It’s a price comparison site, not a travel booking site. It’s particularly useful for researching whether using a combination of different airlines and transfers might save you money.

ITA Matrix: This one is a Penny Hoarder favorite. It works so well, Google bought the company to use its technology in Google Flights. Nowadays, ITA’s website is a more complex version of Google Flights, with advanced, interactive features for veteran travelers. It’s easy to browse fares within a 30-day window if you’re traveling sometime in the next month.

Skiplagged: Called “a travel hacker’s dream,” it gets you insanely cheap flights by finding one-way flights that are making a stop or layover in the airport you want to fly to. This is best if you don’t need to check luggage, because that luggage would continue on to that flight’s final destination.

Kayak: Like Google Flights, it lets you compare airfare prices for multiple airports at the same time. (Would it be cheaper to land in Miami or Fort Lauderdale? Long Beach or LAX?) Unlike Google Flights, you can book directly through Kayak.

Momondo: This search engine includes independent carriers like Southwest that other search engines omit.

Scott’s Cheap Flights: This site is useful for tracking mistake fares and flight sales.

Check Out the Budget Airlines

It may be worth looking into “low-cost” airlines like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, as long as you keep a few caveats in mind.

They don’t fly to as many airports as the big-time airlines. And while their fares are cheap, they make up the difference by charging higher fees. You’ll pay extra for carry-on bags, seat reservations, food and even water. Don’t expect much legroom either.

Allegiant flies to and from a lot of smaller, second-tier airports, so make sure you know exactly how far you’d be landing from your actual destination.

Remember: Checking a Bag Costs Extra

When you’re comparison shopping, remember to take into account the total cost of the flight. That includes the cost of checking bags.

It’s best to not check a bag at all and just make do with carry-ons. Here are tips on how to do that.

If that’s not really an option, here’s what you need to know: Most major airlines charge $25 each way for your first checked bag, and $35 for a second bag.

Of the major carriers, JetBlue allows passengers one checked bag for free, and Southwest Airlines allows two checked bags at no charge.

Become a Frequent Flyer  

Once you get used to paying less for airfare, you might find that traveling is cheaper than you expected. You might find yourself flying more.

Who knows? You might even start earning frequent flyer miles.

That, however, is another story.

Your Turn: What travel website do you use most, and why?

Mike Brassfield (mike@thepennyhoarder.com) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He flies coach.