Two realities exist in the market for cheap commercial airfare: the one that traditional media and the airlines want you to believe and the high frequency, tech-savvy market where real, cheap fares live. Unfortunately, 99% of the people on this planet are forced to live in the former world, whether it’s due to limitations in technology, discomfort with making snap decisions or understanding of how the general system works.
What’s the difference between the two markets? Here’s a hint: if you’re getting daily alerts from Travelzoo, you get excited with American Airlines sends you an email with sale fares or you have a travel agent you’re among the 99%.
That remaining 1%, if you want it, can be cultivated in a few simple steps, though we’ll warn you right now that they place the onus on you, the buyer for making things happen. Still curious? Let’s get started.
5. Do your research online. The problem with the traditional airfare industry and its fares is that they’re geared for the 300 million people that might be shopping for tickets in any given day. Waiting for fare sales to come to you means you’re already behind the curve, that another ten thousand people could have read the email before you and bought your weekend tickets to Paris or your flight to Vegas for your bachelor party.
If you want to actually find unnaturally cheap fares, you need to actively be searching. Every day. You need to know what the buzz is in the industry, what routes are hotly contested after and how you can book the cheapest ticket fastest.
Flyertalk and it’s awkward twin brother Milepoint are the two places to start your research. Both forums are populated by real people searching for dirt cheap tickets every day — those $150 mistake fares to Europe or the $450 tickets to Sydney. When one of those members finds the right ticket they post it on the forum (check the Mileage Run subcategory) and everyone discusses. That’s your time to chip in on the conversation, find a few tickets and contribute to the community.
For ticket booking your best bet is usually a metacrawler like Kayak, or Mobissimo. Those engines use the broadest reaching technology to pull fares from across the web – and give them to you – so that you don’t have to spend time shopping from site to site.
4. Sign up for fare alerts and Airfarewatchdog. If you haven’t got time to hit the reload button on Flyertalk 20 times a day (we’re not kidding), the next best thing you can do is subscribe for fare alerts. Airfarewatchdog runs the best in the industry – they’re actually a tightly knit team (mostly) sitting in an office in Midtown Manhattan, manually searching for fares every day and sending them out to their massive reader base. And they do it fast – not at predetermined times when their email bursts circulate or when their servers are up to speed or when the right ads are in place – minutes after the deals break they’re emailing their subscribers. Rumor has it that they watch Flyertalk too.
While you’re at it, if you’re a Twitter subscriber, Airfarewatchdog has an excellent feed, and you can also take the time to follow The Points Guy, your local Travelzoo and Gary Leff if the Dog happens to be asleep.
Finally, if a decent deal is all that you’re looking for you can set up a fare alert at Kayak.com or any number of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). All that you need to do is search for your ideal fare, sign up for an account and click the “fare alert” option. Once your fare drops to an appreciable level you’ll get an email.
We should warn you though, current fare alert engines are slow and obtuse. You might have better luck searching manually ten times a day versus trusting an automatic search. But that discussion is for another day.
3. Speak to your significant other. Have you found a ticket that you’re keen on purchasing? Good. The clock’s ticking and you need to book it as soon as possible. Not when you get home from work, not after you’ve washed your pants. Right now.
Chances are that you’re trying to travel with someone else, so you need to be familiar with each other’s schedules prior to booking and taking a whirlwind trip across four continents. If that person is immediately unreachable then they should at least be familiar with the concept of what you’re getting them into. And if it’s completely out of the blue, then at least you can fall back on the airline’s cancellation policy. Let’s talk about that some more.
2. Get familiar with your airline’s cancellation policy. Depending on the airline, you may have 24 hours to ticket (American) or cancel (Delta) a reservation that you’re considering. This gives you some time to get home, think about logistics and talk with your travel partner about what sort of craziness you’re getting into. Do yourself a favor and if you find a cheap ticket, wander over to your favorite airline’s search page and search for “cancellation policy.” If there’s a sturdy one in place you can buy your tickets first and ask questions later.
1. Commit to a journey, not a destination. Alright, Copenhagen in the winter may not be your most ideal vacation, but they’ve got a slew of ubercool restaurants, a strong design culture, super friendly people and a great take on life. Revel in the fact that you bought your ticket for $150 and you’ll be thrilled with almost anywhere you go.