You don't have to go to Las Vegas to know what a gamble it is to get a good deal on airline tickets. But with a little planning and a little knowledge, you can win the jackpot in the best tickets game. Here's how.
1. Be flexible
Search for flight deals a month in advance, and, unless you can fly at a moment's notice and find a last-minute sale, book 21 days out. Avoid flying on Monday, Friday and Sunday, which are generally the most expensive days. You can also save a lot by flying at night (yes, the dreaded red-eye) or early in the morning (like when it's still dark). Try to stay over at least one Saturday to save even more. And travel off-season: everyone wants to fly to Hawaii in winter when it's cold or in summer when school is out, but in spring or fall, those seats are cheaper. Finally, research when to buy airline tickets for holiday travel carefully. In general, the closer to a holiday you fly, the higher the prices — unless, perhaps, you travel on the holiday itself.
2. Alter your route
Nonstop flights, although convenient, are expensive. To save money, book a flight with at least one stop. Also, search for flight deals at airports close to your destination. Sometimes it's cheaper to fly into Oakland than San Francisco, say, or Newark instead of JFK. Of course, be sure to factor in any additional ground-transportation costs involved in reaching your final destination.
3. Compare prices online
Several great comparison sites help you find the best tickets. The AARP Travel Center powered by Expedia aggregates most airlines and prices, and you can narrow your search according to date flexibility, number of stops and so on. Kayak is particularly good as an aggregator of airline fare sites. It will open several windows to show you what Expedia, Priceline and others offer. Once you know these prices, check the airline websites; occasionally, airlines have sales they don't post on comparison sites. Also, check the sites of discount airlines like Southwest, jetBlue and RyanAir, whose fares aren't necessarily included on comparison sites. Finally, be sure each quoted fare includes taxes and fees, and read the small print on any "sale" price for your ticket.
4. Track airfares
So, will you get the best deal now, or should you wait a few days? To find out when to buy airline tickets and save money, check out the fare-casting and fare-tracking services on sites such as Bing Travel, Orbitz, Airfare Watch Dog, Fare Compare or Yapta.
5. Join frequent-flyer programs
Go online and sign up for frequent-flyer programs with all the airlines that fly to your favorite destinations. It's free and the miles do add up. Just remember that there are blackout dates for using your miles, and some programs charge a fee to "cash" them in.