Good, cheap flights still exist. Here's how to find them.
Posted November 22, 2018 7:38 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2018 2:23 p.m. EST
Over the past decade, airlines have developed a reputation for nickel-and-diming their passengers. For the most part, the days of free checked baggage and free seat assignments are long gone. Even the days of free carry-on bags seem to be dwindling. And tickets are still expensive enough to be a major purchase for most flyers, especially around the holidays.
But according to Zach Honig, an editor at large for The Points Guy — a website dedicated to airline news and frequent-flyer advice — good, inclusive deals can still be found if you’re willing to do some digging.
We spoke by phone recently about the best ways to search for those fares. A transcript of our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, follows.
Q: Is it even possible to get cheap all-inclusive leisure fares today?
A: Absolutely. You can definitely find cheap fares that include bags and seat assignments and, depending on where you’re headed, even a meal. It’s all about flexibility. You need to be flexible about what date you’re traveling, or even the time of day. Business travelers don’t have that flexibility, so if you fly at times that business travelers aren’t on the road, like Tuesday or Saturday nights, you could find a better fare.
Avoiding peak holiday travel days will really make a difference. The Sunday after Thanksgiving will be probably one of the most expensive days to fly of the year. Flexibility is key.
Q: How should people search for deals?
A: My go-to site whenever I’m beginning my search for airfare is Google Flights. You can find a flight on Google Flights almost as easily as any Google search, and you can see pricing for months at a time.
The other great benefit of using Google Flights is you can set fare alerts. To do that, it’s really straightforward: You put in your origin, destination and the dates you want to travel and choose the flights you want. If you’re logged into your Gmail account, click “track” and you’ll get an email whenever the fare changes. Google will also email you if it’s expecting the fare to change based on historical data.
Q: How long before traveling should people search for flights?
A: Typically, we see domestic fares increase considerably within two weeks of departure. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. If an airline has many seats available on a flight that’s going to mostly appeal to leisure travelers, you may even see fares drop on the day of travel. International flights are more likely to drop or stay the same.
It’s not unusual to see international airfares stay the same while domestic airfares shoot through the roof. That’s really where frequent-flyer miles come into play, for those last-minute flights. Airlines may not drop the cash price, but they may open up awards seats.
The general rule of thumb is two weeks out unless you’re traveling during a super peak period.
Q: When is a good time to go, and where?
A: I like to travel in early January, right after the Christmas-New Year’s rush. The first couple of weeks in January tend to be a slower period. As you get closer to Presidents Day in the United States, that’s another peak period because it’s usually a three- or four-day weekend.
In early January, you can find some great deals both on flights and on hotels. It doesn’t really matter where you go during that period. Caribbean, domestic flights, ski destinations — those are all accessible.
I like to catch the shoulder season, especially if it’s a ski trip. Skiing in Colorado in March can be a great experience. Temperatures are bearable, hotels are cheap, and you’re not dealing with a million people on line for the lift.
Q: Are you totally out of luck if you have children and are tied to school breaks?
A: It’s a challenge. In that case, I recommend falling back on frequent-flyer miles if you have them, and booking far in advance. If you know you have to fly on specific days, check award availability almost a year out. This is the time of year to be planning next year’s holiday season trips.
You can find great deals even during peak periods to places people are less likely to go. A lot of people are not going to want to take their entire family to Europe for a long weekend. Those flights are going to have tremendous value.
If you have no flexibility, that’s when that price tracker from Google is really going to come in handy.
Q: Are basic economy fares ever a good deal for leisure travelers?
A: Basic economy fares pose quite a challenge to families, and really to all travelers. You really don’t have any flexibility. There’s no way on some of these fares to select your seat in advance. On United, you can’t even bring a carry-on bag. Any savings you got are essentially erased by the carry-on bag fees. Even if you do pay for a carry-on, you may not have space for it on the plane, so there’s not much upside. Except with American — on last-minute flights, a basic economy fare can be hundreds of dollars lower than regular economy fares. There can be value in basic economy fares, but it’s rare to come across a ticket that actually makes sense.
If you do end up booking a low-cost carrier like Spirit or Frontier, keep all the fees in mind. You may have to dig a little bit to see the exclusions, and you’re definitely going to have to dig to see the fees. Spirit, for example, charges $100 to bring the carry-on on the plane if you haven’t paid for it in advance. You could end up paying quite a bit more than a flight on a full-service carrier.
Q: Anything else to keep in mind about finding good flight deals?
A: Look at vacation packages. If you know you’re going to need a hotel room as well, all the major carriers have vacation deals. The price of a package including a hotel can be less than the price of the flights alone. On a trans-Atlantic flight with a lie-flat business seat, you can save a couple of thousand dollars by booking your hotel through the airline.