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Cheap airline travel in North America

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Cheap airline travel in North America

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How to book, when to fly

  • Booking in advance often gets you a lower fare. The cheapest fares are likely to be unavailable in the last three or four weeks before a flight.
  • You can often get cheaper airline tickets by shopping online than by using a travel agent. Some airlines even allow you to pick your seat when booking, and many offer web-only discounts.
  • Cheaper fares can often be had between Monday noon and Thursday noon, or on Saturdays. However, spending at least Saturday night at your destination may also help you find a lower fare. Monday and, Friday, and summer Saturday flights tend to be crowded. Check a variety of dates if your travel plans are flexible.
  • Certain periods around holidays are more expensive and crowded than normal for all forms of commercial travel and accommodation. In the U.S., this includes: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the four days before Christmas, the first working days after New Year's. The holidays themselves and "shadow" days (like December 26) are often very light. Also watch out for Memorial Day weekend, college Spring Break season in March and April, and seasonal destinations (beaches in the local summer, ski areas when there's snow, New England and Canada when there are fall leaves to see, college towns when there are graduations happening, Los Vegas on weekends and Valentine's Day).
  • High-traffic routes between major cities are often considerably cheaper than flights to smaller cities. Consider taking public transit or renting a car for the remainder of your journey. High-traffic routes also allow you more choice of departure time and flexibility in case of missed or canceled flights.
  • Buying a round-trip ticket is usually cheaper than buying two one-way tickets, which usually involves using the same two airports for both leaving and returning. But sometimes this is not true. Use a sophisticated cost-comparison site like Orbitz to check.
  • Sometimes buying a round-trip ticket is cheaper than buying a one-way ticket, even if you are only going in one direction. But some airlines have instituted a "missed flight" fee to prevent people from doing this. Be sure to check before attempting this.
  • Avoid booking the last flight of the day in case you miss your scheduled flight or it is delayed or canceled due to weather or technical problems (neither are uncommon). Airlines do not provide lodging for delays caused by weather or other factors outside their control.

Price comparison sites

The best way to find a cheap fare fast is to use a price comparison site. This will allow you to check multiple airlines, possibly at multiple airports on multiple days. You may also be able to search for a hotel or hostel, rental car, cruise, rail pass, vacation package, or other related items at the same site. Here is a list, in order of usefulness:

  • Orbitz - Major North American carriers; often finds the best price among conventional comparison sites. You can often find a lower fare adding nearby airports and day-before/day-after to your search parameters. Also allows you to specify a price, and get an e-mail later if a suitable fare becomes available.
  • Travelocity - Another comparison site with the added feature of being able to find the cheapest flights available regardless of dates of departure and return. Good if you want to go to a specific destination, but your schedule if very flexible. Also has a Canadian site.
  • Priceline - Major North American carriers. Offers a conventional price comparison with full flight details. Also offers a "name your own price" feature where you can get a lower fare if you are willing to not know the airline and time of your departure (or other details, for other services) until after you commit to buying it. (For US Departures only)
  • HotWire - Major North American carriers. You don't know the time of day your flight leaves until after you commit to buying it.

Many of these sites offer a service where they will email you when the fares for specific destinations change by a specific amount or go below a specific value.

Discount airlines in North America

Many discount airlines do not list their fares with price comparison sites or with travel agents. Check their web sites individually for great deals. Discount airlines sometimes have special procedures or restrictions, and may be less willing to allow you to change to a different flight or to give you a refund. Be sure you understand all special terms before booking. Discount airlines are constantly expanding the list of airports they service; check their official sites for details.

Most commonly not listed:

  • JetBlue - All flights have DirecTV for every passenger. Many flights are non-stop.
  • Southwest Airlines - No reserved seats. Boarding priority depends on how early you check in at the airport. Not limited to the Southwestern US.

Other discount airlines:

Special deals

  • Many airlines offer student and senior citizen discounts, and have low or free fares for young children.
  • Most airlines will give you a discounted fare if you must fly on short notice because of a family emergency, such as a death or sudden illness. Call ahead or speak to an agent; this is not possible to arrange online.
  • Military and airline personnel are usually eligible for cheap or free travel on their respective aircraft.

Flying standby

  • "Flying standby" is when you have a ticket for a certain destination, but you don't have a seat reserved on any particular flight. You are allowed to board the next flight going to your destination that has a free seat.
  • Standby policies vary greatly between airlines.
  • If you can get them, standby tickets are sometimes cheaper than regular fare if you must book your flight at the last minute.
  • You may be required to pay an extra fee to fly standby.
  • If you buy a discount ticket, or a ticket on a discount airline, you are more likely to have to pay a fee or upgrade to a higher fare to change your flight at the last minute (or at all), even if you are just trying to fly standby.
  • Frequent flyer club members, students, seniors, airline employees, and other special groups are more likely to be able to fly standby for cheap or at all.

Sales and limited-time offers

Many of the airlines and price comparison sites listed above show special offers on their homepages. Also see:

Arriving at the airport

  • Arrive to the airport on time (an hour or two before takeoff, as recommended by your airline) and check in right away. If the flight is overbooked, you don't want to be bumped.
  • Many airlines have a certain time at which they will no longer check in passengers, because it will take to long for them to get through security, perhaps up to 30 minutes before takeoff. If you are lucky, you will get booked on the next flight for free, but don't count on it. Check with your airline if you might be delayed or if you are habitually late.
  • If there is space available, some airlines do allow you to take an earlier flight if you happen to arrive early. This might be for free, a small fee, or a large fee. But it can't hurt to ask.

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