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Published: Sep 20, 2023 7 min read
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Rangely Garcia for Money

This is an excerpt from Dollar Scholar, the Money newsletter where news editor Julia Glum teaches you the modern money lessons you NEED to know. Don't miss the next issue! Sign up at money.com/subscribe and join our community of 160,000+ Scholars.

I am writing this from the Orlando International Airport, where I’m not-so-patiently waiting to catch a flight to NYC. The plane was supposed to leave at 7:35; currently, our estimated time of departure is 9:53 p.m.

I fly back and forth between Florida and New York fairly often. My family is here, and I like to see them whenever I can — even if it means dealing with delays, fighting my way through hordes of sunburned tourists and dodging children who inevitably melt down when they have to send their stuffed Minion through the TSA scanner. (This happens all. The. Time.)

I have a high tolerance for Minions, but the cost of the whole airport rigmarole bugs me. I always shop around before buying a ticket — but I never seem to snag those uber-cheap deals travel hackers are always bragging about online.

How can I save money on flights?

I got on the phone with Katy Nastro, a spokesperson for Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), who immediately cleared up what she calls a major misconception among U.S. travelers: that airfare has been extra expensive lately. In reality, plane ticket prices dropped 13.3% from August 2022 to August 2023.

“I think people think airfare is super expensive right now because they are booking last minute,” she says.

However, Nastro acknowledges that airfare is very unpredictable. That’s why she recommends looking for “Goldilocks Windows” where I don’t book too early but also don’t book too late. She says the most reliable way to find affordable flights during a peak season like the holidays is to book in the opposite season.

For domestic flights during a peak season, the Goldilocks Window is generally three to seven months out. For domestic flights during off-peak season, the window is shorter — around one to three months.

“That can seem really big, but I want to stress that airfare is volatile, and in that time period, it can fluctuate dozens of times,” Nastro says.

On that note: Flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays tends to be less expensive than other days of the week. Hayley Berg, lead economist at Hopper, says travelers who fly in the middle of the week can save an average of 17% (about $50 per ticket) on domestic airfare.

She adds, too, that early flights tend to have fewer delays, which is something that WOULD HAVE BEEN GOOD TO KNOW before I bought my 7:35 p.m. — er, 9:53 p.m. — ticket.

Waiting until the last minute is rarely a wise move. Although many people assume airlines will get nervous close to departure and slash prices to get rid of tickets fast, Nastro says that’s not usually the case.

“The closer you get to the day you're looking to travel, airfare tends to go in one direction — and that’s up,” Nastro says.

Airlines know that business travelers, who tend to not be as price-conscious as leisure travelers, will snatch up costly seats without hesitation.

“People who have unlimited budgets can afford to pay astronomical prices, so airlines are like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to set the price high and see what we can get,’” she adds.

Industry competition plays a big factor in how much I’ll have to spend on a ticket, too. The more airlines that fly a certain route, the more likely I am to find an inexpensive flight between two cities as various companies try to undercut each other and attract customers.

I can also save money on plane tickets by using certain tools.

One of those is the law: All U.S. airlines are required by the Department of Transportation to allow people to cancel and receive a full refund without penalty for 24 hours on flights booked at least seven days before departure. So if I see a good price, snag it and then my plans change right away, it is possible to get my money back.

Another is credit card rewards. And finally, there are flight alerts, like those from Google Flights and Hopper, which give recommendations and notifications about when to buy to maximize discounts.

Nastro says that if I know when and where I’m going — like, say, to a destination wedding — I can use alerts far out from a departure to get an idea of how much I’ll expect to pay. And once I do pull the trigger, she says not to turn off the alerts, because it may be possible to cancel my original flight, get an airline credit and rebook at a lower price, saving overall even though it’s not in cash.

The bottom line

Airfare is extremely volatile. There’s no hard-and-fast secret to scoring cheap flights.

“The reality is that the best time to book a flight depends on a number of factors like where you’re flying to, the dates, if you’re flying with stops or without, what cabin class you’re considering” and more, Berg says.

But I generally can save by booking a few months in advance, choosing popular routes, flying mid-week, and making the most of consumer-friendly policies and tools.

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