How to Get the Lowest Airfare on Discount Airfare Websites

Over the past couple years I’ve spent many late nights trolling for cheap airfares online. Through this process I’ve developed a full proof method for making sure that I always get the cheapest airfare currently available.

To get a great fare online you need to keep two things in mind:

  • You’re gonna have to search multiple sites. There is no ONE website that you can use to get the lowest airfare every single time. There are many reasons for this but it would take way too long to explain, so just trust me on this one!
  • There are dozens of discount airfare websites out there; to keep from getting overwhelmed just remember that most of them will fall into one of 4 categories – these categories form a kind of pyramid – each feeding off the one underneath it.  The categories are:

1. Airline Websites

Making up the foundation of the pyramid are the Airline’s own websites – American Airlines, United, Delta, etc.  You can book your flight directly through them and sometimes they do have the lowest fares, but it would take forever to check each site individually. Another downside is that they don’t list multiple carrier routes.

2. Travel Agent Sites

Sitting above the airlines on the Pyramid are the traditional booking engines like Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia and Vayama. These websites operate as online travel agencies, searching their own databases and multiple travel agency systems to come up with airfare deals.

If you buy a ticket through a travel agent site they will process the sale on behalf of the airline and keep a small fee (usually $5-$15). Experienced shoppers know that these mega-sites don’t always include the cheapest fares in their search results.

There’s a subset of travel agent sites know as Blind Sites.  These are sites such as Priceline and Hotwire, that allow you to bid for tickets. This can often result in a lower price but getting a good deal on a blind site is a bit of a chore – so it will be the subject of a different article.

3. Search Engine Sites

The next level of the pyramid is occupied by Search Engine Sites like Kayak, FareChase and Mobissimo. These sites have an advantage over the travel agent sites; they are far more comprehensive, searching multiple travel agent sites to find the best deal.  They can also search the airlines directly, accessing some smaller databases that the travel agent sites may not deal with.

The search engine sites don’t actually sell you the ticket.  Instead, when you’re ready to buy, they hand you off to the site that is offering that fare. They do not charge a fee but instead rely on affiliate deals and on-site advertising like Adsense to make their money. These sites usually have the best fares.

4. Search Engine Portals

Capping off the pyramid are a new breed of Super Search Engine Sites like Booking Buddy and Fare Detective – They are basically just portal sites, allowing the user to access multiple search engine and travel agent sites all from one nifty interface.

Which Website Should I Use?

I wish I could tell you “use this site!” – unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way. But if you use my system below you can be pretty confident that you’ll get the lowest possible airfare:

Search Tips:

Flexible Dates – Try different departure and return dates if you can – some sites allow you to search 1-3 days before and after your specified date. Wednesday and Thursday are the cheapest days to fly.

Travel City – Instead of San Diego try Los Angeles as your departure city, this can save you a bundle. Usually the bigger Hubs will have cheaper fares. Many sites have check boxes to search nearby airports.

Flip-Flop Your Travel Itinerary – If you planned to go to India first – then to Thailand, flip it around and fly to Bangkok first (flights are much cheaper) then, when you’re ready, find a local cheapo flight to Bangalore. There are some amazingly cheap local airlines, especially in Asia and Europe. (Warning: This only works if your schedule is extremely flexible) (Double Extreme Warning!: Make sure you can show onward passage out of the arrival country before your visa period expires.)

1. Set a base price

First thing I do is to figure out what the going rate is for the fare.  I usually start with Kayak, or Sidestep.  They both have a simple and functional interface and consistently return fares at the lower end of what’s available out there.

I’ll also search Priceline (the search engine, not the bidding part of the site). For some reason they often return the rock bottom fares – and I like the pictures of William Shatner that pop up while I’m waiting for the search results.

If I’m flying International (which I usually am) I’ll also check Mobissimo.

If I’m flying US Domestic I’ll also search Southwest, US Air and Jet Blue since they don’t make their fares available to outside sites.

After comparing all these site’s fares I’ll be fairly confident that I have an accurate base price to work from.


2. Squash Your Paranoia

Just to make sure I’ve got an accurate base price I’ll go to BookingBuddy or FareDetective. These are the Super Search Engines I mentioned above. I Click randomly on several of the choices for smaller search engines and in a jiffy I’m presented with a bunch of new windows – each with search results from one of the smaller sites.

The resulting fares will usually be the same or much higher than my base price, but now I’m confident I’m not gonna get ripped off.

3. Use the Power of Mashups

The base fare you settled on in steps 1 and 2 is probably a pretty good deal – but if you want to dig a little deeper you can try a whole new breed of search engine research sites that utilize next-gen functionality to bring you some very powerful analysis tools. With these sites you can not only see what a fare is today, but what it’s been in the past and what it may be in the future:

Farecompare – If I could only use one Discount Airfare Site it would be Farecompare.  It’s a very cool concept – you don’t enter exact dates, instead you just punch in Departure and Arrival cities and Farecompare spits out a calendar showing the cheapest fare in each month over a 12 month period.  This is awesome for people with flexible travel schedules.  This is just one of many useful features on farecompare.

Farecast – The main selling point of Farecast is the airfare predictions. The site tells you if your selected fare is rising or dropping and if you should buy your ticket now or wait a bit.  The predictions are only accurate about 50-75% of the time and they only work for select cities, mostly in the US.  There are a bunch of other analysis and graphing tools on this site (it’s owned by Microsoft) – if you like technical analysis you’ll love Farecast.


What about Bidding Sites?

I’ve never used the bidding component of Priceline or Hotwire, but the general consensus around the travel community is that they have become obsolete when it comes to bidding on airline tickets. They still work great for Hotels though.

4. Airline’s Websites

If you have a lot of free time and you haven’t found a price you can live with then you may want to check the airline’s own sites. Sometimes they’ll have unpublished deals. Some of the airlines like American Airlines guarantee that you’ll get the cheapest price from their website (Note: That’s only the cheapest AA fare).

Another advantage of booking directly with the airline is that, if the price goes down, many carriers will refund the difference.

5. Book it with Expedia

When you’re done with all your research and you feel as if you’ve found the rock bottom price – head on over to Expedia and check the fare there.  If it’s only $10 more do yourself a favor and book it on Expedia.

Expedia has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of all the online travel bookers. Why is this important?  Because you may get burned if you go with a less well known agency like Vayama.  Just Google “Vayama Sucks” and you’ll hear first hand from some very unsatisfied Vayama customers who wish they’d gone to Expedia.

6. Fare Alerts

Okay, If you’re still not happy with the fares you’re finding, and if you have plenty of time before your desired departure date, then try signing up for some airfare deal alerts.  Many of the sites you’ve been searching have this feature.

You type in your Email address and they’ll alert you if your selected fare drops.  Just be careful because if you wait too long the fare may actually go up.  Remember you get the best prices booking at least 21 days in advance.

If the fares are all still too pricey for your budget there’s still hope – but that’s the subject of a future article.

Happy Fare Hunting!

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