Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series called “Get It for Less” that will appear every Wednesday on MainStreet, so check back for more shopping tips on your favorite products.
NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The secret to finding the cheapest flights is less about knowing which airline to fly than figuring out the best times to book and how to keep track of flash sales and promotions.
MainStreet asked travel guru George Hobica, president and founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, for his inside tips on how to find the best deals on flights during the holidays and through the rest of the year. Here’s what you need to know.
Book During the Holidays
It might sound counterintuitive but this is actually one of the best times of the year to buy plane tickets, as long as you’re not actually booking for the holidays.
“We’re coming up on two periods that are very cheap for travel – just after Thanksgiving to Dec. 14 and from Jan. 5 to Feb. 14,” Hobica says. “The fares go down because people are traveled out, so prices drop domestically and internationally.”
Aside from these dates, Hobica also recommends booking domestic flights between Labor Day and Thanksgiving – when families are less likely to travel since kids are back in school. For international flights, the ideal dates start a little earlier in mid-August when students go back to school and run through mid-December (since Thanksgiving isn’t exactly a big deal abroad.) Travelers might also find good deals on international travel during the slow period between Jan. 5 and Mar. 31.
Fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
The time of week can be almost as big a factor for the price as the time of year, though what matters isn’t the day of the week you book the flight but rather the day you plan to fly.
As a general rule, Hobica says the cheapest domestic flights are those that depart on Tuesday or Wednesday and the cheapest international flights are from Monday through Wednesday, as most travelers prefer to stick closer to the weekends and limit the number of days they have to take off from work. That said, there is one big caveat to hunting for bargains on these days.
“The airlines do have good sales on these days, but the airlines also like to play games with consumers and the more that the media trains people to look on Tuesday and Wednesday for deals, the more the airlines can manipulate the consumers who shop on those days,” Hobica says.
For that reason, he recommends keeping an eye out for sales that take place later in the week just to cover your bases and have a point of comparison for the deals you find on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Sign Up for Airfare Alerts
The best way to keep track of those deals is to sign up for as many airfare alert services as you can. TripAdvisor, Hotwire and Bing all offer alerts for fare sales and price changes as does AirfareWatchdog, which is actually the only one of these services to include promotions for Southwest. Not only do prices on flights change from week to week, but even in the course of a single day airfare can fluctuate significantly, which is why following these alerts can be so helpful.
Take Advantage of Frequent-Flier Programs and Rewards Cards
Finally, Hobica recommends signing up for frequent-flier programs and rewards cards that earn points and discounts on flights.
Credit cards like the Chase Sapphire or Capital One Venture Rewards cards let travelers earn ample points that can be used on plane tickets. Likewise, virtually all major airlines offer frequent-flier programs and some like British Airways and Virgin America offer cards with generous rewards. The Virgin America Visa, for example, offers three points for every dollar spent and up to 1,200 bonus points each year that can be redeemed for airline miles.