How to find cheap flights online

by Steve on August 15th, 2011

Author’s Background

As an avid traveler and owner of an upscale online travel agency, I am always looking for ways to find cheap flights for myself and my clients.  This blog provides an overview of the different types of Online Travel Sites and the pro’s and con’s of using them.  In addition, I have provided you with some helpful travel tips that can help you find cheap flights and airline ticket deals online.

Supplier Websites

A supplier website is a website that is owned directly by the airline.  Examples of popular domestic supplier website are Southwest.com, AA.com and UA.com.  Some of the more popular international airline websites are Qantas.com, SingaporeAirlines.com and Lufthansa.com.  As 50% of the airline tickets booked online are done through a supplier website, it should be no surprise that one of the best way to find cheap flights is to book directly through a suppliers website.  If you know exactly where you are going, and you know that only a few carriers fly to certain destination, then you may just want to go directly to a few of these airlines travel sites and compare prices.  This can be time consuming and cumbersome however if you are dealing with multile airlines, require a connection or if you are traveling to an international destination.

Online Travel Agencies

When it comes to buying airline tickets online, everyone is familiar with the large Online Travel Agencies or (OTA’s) as they are referred to in the industry.  The big 4 OTA’s of Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, Orbitz.com and Priceline.com all provide a good booking tool for purchasing published (retail) airline tickets.  The benefit of using an OTA is that they typically do alot of volume with the airlines.  This volume allows them to negotiate commissionable deals with the airlines so that they can reduce their service fees.  The OTA’s are then able to offer you the ability to search for flights on their sites and only charge you a minimal fee for this service.

Compare this service to a travel agent who will have to charge you for their time to research and find you the best deal and you can see the appeal of the OTA’s.  The main drawback of using an OTA’s is that their User Interfaces are still limited in their ability to search for the best flights.  Basically, what you see is what you get when it comes to booking a flight on a OTA.  If you find a great deal, buy it.  However, if you have a travel agent that is knowlegeable, run your flights by them and see if they can find you a better deal.

Wholesale Travel Websites

Wholesale travel websites such as Jetsetz.com as well as other wholesale travel sites such as Vayama.com, or AirGorilla.com work a little differently than the larger OTA’s.  Unlike the large OTA’s that focus primarily on getting their commissions to reduce their service fees, Wholesale Travel Websites focus primarilly on reducing the total cost of the ticket by a percentage, versus a commission.  This is how certain Wholesale Travel Sites are able to offer a 20% to 50% discount off of the retail prices shown on Retail Travel Sites (OTA’s).

Wholesale Travel Sites can you save more money than a retail travel site but their inventory is more limited.  Wholesale Travel Websites are much more niche driven, meaning they focus on driving business to certain markets or destination.  By focusing on a specific destination, Wholesale Travel Websites can negotiate directly with the airline to get what we call in the industry as a ”Net Rate” or “Net Contract”.  As these Net Contracts are based on market share, the airlines only give these contracts out to Travel Websites that focus on helping them sell a specific destinations.  They will also sometimes give out a the Net Contracts out for Business Class Flights.  Unlike the large OTA’s, a Wholesale Travel Website will specialize on certain destinations which are almost always international.  So my advice would be to consider a Wholesale Travel Website when you are planning an international trip, a business class trip or a last-minute trip.

Airline Consolidator Websites

An Airline Consolidator is a wholesaler that negotiates directly with the Airlines to get access to Net Contracts.  The main reason Consolidators get these contracts with the airlines is if they agree not to publish these Net Fares on their websites.  Most Consolidators also are not allowed to sell directly to the public, so they sell through travel agents.  So it is with some trepidation that I bring up the advice to go directly to a Airline Consolidator website to book your travel.  For a list of reputable consolidators, visit the United States Air Conslidator Association (USAC) at www.usaca.com.

There are some Airline Consolidators that sell directly to the public but my advice to you is to be careful.  Most Consolidators are not able to tell you which airline they are selling through their website (as it will be a violation of their agreement with the airline) so what you receive when you do a search on their website is what we refer to in the as an “opaque fare”.  This fare may not show the price or the carrier or the routing until after you purchase the airline ticket.  So, you have to be careful.  Some travel websites such a Jetsetz.com  and Vayama.com have onnections to the Consolidators inventory that enable them to sell the Consolidator’s flights inventory through their websites.

Meta Search Websites or Aggregators

Another website option that has become popular is to use a Meta Search website.  A Meta Search site, also referred to as an Aggregator is a website that allows you to search multiple travel websites from one website.  Websites such as Kayak.com, SideStep.com or cheapflights.com all enable you to put in your flight search information and search multiple sites simultaneously to find the best deal.  The pro’s of using a meta search site is they can provide you access to multiple travel sites at the same time.  The con’s of using a meta search site is that some of them are paid better by certain suppliers to list their information at the top of the page, so sometimes the information provided may be a little biased.  In addition, sometimes the Meta Search Websites do not have connections to some of the smaller suppliers or niche driven wholesale travel sites.  So they may not always be able to find you the cheapest prices on airline tickets.

 

5 Tips for finding cheap flights online

Now that we have discussed the different ways to search online for the cheapest flights, let’s try and pull it all together with a few helpful online booking tips:

1)  Use certain online travel sites for certain types of travel

If you know your destination and there are only a few carriers (i.e. Southwest) I suggest checking their websites for the best deal and booking direct.  If there are multiple carriers, use an OTA or a Metasearch website.  Finally, if you are traveling internationally, business class or last-minute, consider a Wholesale travel site.

2)  Start with a Meta Search Engine for domestic travel

As a Meta Search Engine may not have all of the wholesale inventory for international destinations, I would not suggest a Meta Search Engine for international travel.  However if it is a simple domestic flight, I would suggest starting your initial search with a Meta Search Engine.  From there, you can either book on the supplier or OTA website direct or use that information to compare to other travel sites.

3)  Book your flights as far out as possible

As anyone who has tried to book a flight home for the holidays in November has found, there are certain busy travel periods of the year that drive the price of airline tickets up.  If you know you are going to travel during a peak time of the year, book as far out as possible.  I suggest a minimum of 60 days out if possible.  If you insist on being a procrastinator, or if you are like me and you cannot commit to a specific time period, put a reminder at least 22 days in advance on your calendar of when you plan on traveling to remind you to book your flights.  As soon as you get within the 21 day window, the airlines yielding systems begin to raise the price of airline tickets.

3)  Know the best time of the week to buy your airline ticket

Believe it or not, there actually is a best time of the week to purchase your airline ticket.  What is the best time, Tuesday night at 12:01 am (Wednesday morning).  The reason why this occurs is that airline fare wars usually start on a Fridays.  The other airlines match these prices and the fares drop usually through Tuesday morning.  As the airlines allow you 24 hours to cancel your ticket, all the flights that were booked on Monday but not purchased go back into the system Tuesday night at 12:01 am.  These are typically the cheapest tickets available for the week.

4)  Use a travel agent for complex flights

For complex itineraries, international flights and last-minute flights, I always suggest using a travel agent.  A savvy travel agent that knows how to use the Global Distribution System (GDS) properly will usually find you a better flight than you will find online.  Especially if they have Consolidator relationships or happen to have good airline contracts at their agency.  A travel agent has more control of the information they are receiving from the airlines and subsequently know how to work the system better than an OTA to find you the best deal on flights.  Although it sounds old school, you never want to rule out the option of using a smart travel agent to find the best deal on airline tickets.

5)  Sign Up for Flight Deals

Although some travel sites may send you deals that are either not bookable or do not match your travel dates, it does not hurt to sign up for travel deals on some of the suppliers or OTA’s travel sites.  When they have discounted inventory, they will sometimes notify their members through an email.

I hope this information helps you find the best deals on flights.

Happy Travels!

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    Thank you for the kind words!

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