Ever booked a flight on a Friday, only to see the fare cut in half by Tuesday? What a difference a few days can make! To take the mystery out of ever-changing fares so you can maximize your vacation budget, we’ve called in three travel experts who’ve boiled down cost-effective booking to a sweet science. Avoid overpaying using these tips.
HOW TO SAVE ON AIRLINE TICKETS
Book a few weeks in advance. To snag the best deal, book flights six to eight weeks out for domestic travel and eight to 12 weeks out for international travel, says Reid Bramblett, founder of ReidsGuides.com, a repository of useful travel links, insider tips and advice.
Adds Mark Di Vincenzo, author of Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: “Some people who track airfares say the best time to book domestic air travel is about 80 days in advance, while the best time to book international air travel is about 120 days in advance.”
“Airlines have gotten much smarter about tweaking their flights to raise the percentage on their load factors, which is a fancy way of saying that planes are flying fuller than ever, meaning the lower fares are selling out faster,” he says. “But if you’re looking more than 12 weeks out, you’ll see airlines are still charging top dollar in the hope of filling the plane with full-fare passengers.”
An exception: For peak travel times, such as major holidays or events, it’s safe to add another month to your advance booking time, says Anne Banas, executive editor of Smarter Travel.
Lock in deals early in the week. Generally speaking, the lowest average fares are sold on Sundays, followed by Saturdays, Tuesdays, Mondays, Thursdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, says Di Vincenzo, who cites an analysis done by Expedia and Airlines Reporting Corp, which processes tickets booked through travel agencies. “Based on an analysis of hundreds of millions of tickets, [research] now identifies Sundays as the best day to buy airline tickets, as airlines advertise their lowest prices on the weekends, which is also a time when corporate flights aren't being booked,” he says. By Tuesday, other airlines may be matching those sales, according to Banas, and then fares rise until the next weekend.
A little research will give you some perspective. “Check over the weekend to get a baseline for a standard fare, and then check back on Tuesday to see if it has suddenly dropped,” Bramblett suggests.
Fly on off-days. The day you fly is important, too. In general, experts say, flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays are cheaper, while Sunday flights typically are the most expensive.
Wait—if you’re flexible. Should you ever wait to book at the last minute? Only if you can take it or leave it. “Airlines want to sell every seat on every flight, but they’re smart enough to know that they can charge a lot for last-minute buyers because they assume those buyers are desperate and will pay just about anything,” Di Vincenzo says.
Still, you can find deals on “distressed” inventory—airplane seats or hotel rooms that aren’t selling—if you can be flexible and wait, Banas says.
Bottom line: No matter when you book or fly, you’ll get your best price if you do thorough research beforehand. Spend a few days investigating fares on a variety of flights so you’ll have a good sense of the price ranges for the trip you want to take. That way, you’ll know when you should jump on a steal—or when you should run away from an overpriced ticket.
HOW TO SAVE ON HOTEL ROOMS
Book when quotas need to be met. Try booking at the end of the quarter or year, Di Vincenzo says. “Hotel sales staffers usually have quarterly quotas, so call a hotel at the end of March, June, September or December when they’re more eager to book rooms, or ask when they will offer discounted rates,” he says. “Hotels know months in advance when they’re likely to be busy or have plenty of vacancies. That’s when they offer the best rates.”
Wait out the best deals. There’s no need to book too far in advance, unless there’s a special small lodge you’re coveting, or if there’s a major event occurring in the city during your trip, says Bramblett, who suggests booking hotels just two to three days in advance.
“Reserve in advance only what it makes sense to reserve, but don’t overbook,” Bramblett says. “The best timing when it comes to much of travel is ‘right now,’ and it’s hard to take an opportunity when your entire trip has been pre-programmed.”
Upgrade early in the week. Sunday and Monday are the best days of the week to ask for a free hotel upgrade, says Di Vincenzo. “Those usually are the slowest days, and there are more vacant rooms, so there are more opportunities to get a better room or a room with a better view or a bigger bathroom.”
Just remember to ask for the upgrade—hotels typically don’t offer them up, even if they’re available. “It also helps if you booked a mid-priced room,” Di Vincenzo says. “If you paid $49 for a room, don’t expect to get a free upgrade to a spacious suite.”
MORE TRICKS TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TRAVEL
Use your NEA member benefits!
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Save on rental cars: Get a discount on your next car rental through any of our five partners: Alamo, Dollar Rent A Car, Enterprise, Hertz and National. In addition to discounted rates, many of these programs offer no daily mileage limits, no charge for a second driver, coupon offers and 24-hour emergency roadside assistance.
Save on hotels: As an NEA member, you’ll receive a 20% discount at any of Red Roof’s 435-plus locations nationwide, along with additional perks such as free WiFi, complimentary parking and free pet stays. You’ll also find discounted hotel rates through NEA Click & Save, the NEA’s popular discount program.
Cash in your NEA Click & Save WOWPoints: You’ve been shopping through NEA Click & Save, haven’t you? (If not, you should, and here’s why!) Redeem your WOWPoints to lessen the cost of your airfare, hotel stay or any other travel expenses. Not only can you use your WOWPoints to pay for all or part of your hotel booking (there are no hurdles and no blackout days to redeem), but you can also find incredible deals in the Travel Savings section.
Bonus tip: Use your NEA Cash Rewards Card to start earning cash back on your purchases along with racking up WOWPoints!
Follow travel websites and social media
Many websites and social media outlets can help you keep track of affordable travel opportunities, from the providers themselves to third-party aggregators.
Airlines and hotels use Twitter and Facebook to quickly post new and limited deals for their most ardent customers. Follow as many travel companies as you like on social media sites to score fresh discounts. Examples: Jet Blue, Southwest Airlines, Marriott International and Hilton Hotels.
If you know exactly where you’re going and how you need to get there, sign up for route-specific alerts from various airlines or from tracking services such as Yapta.com and airfarewatchdog.com. You can keep tabs on fluctuations and spot a great deal when it pops up. Weekday domestic fares typically change about three times a day.
Before you buy airline tickets, check MSN Travel (formerly Bing.com), which predicts whether the price of your flight will go up, down or stay the same in the near future. Use airfare aggregators such as Momondo.com, Hipmunk.com and Mobissimo.com to make quick work of pinpointing the lowest fare.
“Kayak.com is the most famous—thanks to advertising—but they have a lot of ‘sponsored’ results” that benefit the sponsors more than the customers, Bramblett says.
He also points out that no aggregators cover Southwest prices. “Southwest often has the lowest fares on any given domestic route—especially once you factor in that two bags fly free on Southwest, [which can] automatically add at least $50 to the actual cost of the ticket,” he says.