How to Outwit the Airlines and Score a Cheap Flight

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AirportThis summer, if you decide to fly back to the same vacation destination you visited last year, the tickets will cost you 12% to 15% more.

That's for the fare alone, a result of higher fuel costs that airlines are passing on to customers. Then you'll have to tack on luggage fees, taxes, charges for on-board meals, and other extras. But with a little flexibility and some creative maneuvering, you can get where you're going for less.

How to Outwit the Airlines
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How to Outwit the Airlines and Score a Cheap Flight

The shortest path between two points may be a straight line, but rarely does that seem to apply to airline routes. You might not be surprised by a layover in Chicago if you're flying from Boston to Seattle, but rarely will you find so obvious a route, especially on discounted and last-minute tickets.

Flying from New York to Dallas? JetBlue (JBLU) will make you lay over in Boston. Taking a short hop across the Adriatic Sea from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Venice, Italy on Iberia? Expect to lay over in Barcelona, Spain. That's because most airlines have hubs that they operate many more flights through, which make them cheaper. For example, American Airlines (AAL) has its largest hub in Dallas-Fort Worth, while United Continental (UAL) now has its largest hub in Houston (United's top hub was Chicago O'Hare before the merger).

If the 2005 Wes Craven thriller Red Eye has led you to pass on booking overnight flights, you might be missing out on some bargains.

A round-trip flight on British Airways from New York City to London on an afternoon in early July can cost approximately $1,500. An evening flight (after 6 p.m., although it varies by airline), however, can cost less than $1,000. And it's not just the transatlantic route. Red-eye flights are traditionally less expensive, not as full, and offer shorter lines at check-in and through security. And after all, time is money.

Travel newsletters like Johnny Jet, websites like Airfare Watchdog, or airline-specific social media feeds often provide flash and last-minute deals. Some sites, like Kayak, will automatically prompt you to set up an alert for a particular destination once you've done a couple of searches with the same departure and destination locations.

While many blogs and websites theorize on the best time or day to buy an airfare, there is no magic formula. Only by regularly comparing fares against other dates and airlines will you know when to make your purchase.

A good indicator of how easy an airline is to fly is its policies on changes and cancellations. While the policies are as varied as the quality of the in-flight meals, the information is easier to quantify. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes an annual list of fees generated by each airline. In 2011, Delta (DAL) charged a whopping $766 million in change and cancellation fees. Alaska Airlines (ALK) charged a mere $10 million (And lest you attribute the big difference to the relative sizes of the carriers, Delta only carried nine times as many passengers as Alaska Airlines.)

While the cost of flying may be increasing, airfare deals can always be had with a little patience, persistence, and research. Whether you're traveling alone, with colleagues, or with your family, you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your flights this summer. Maybe even enough for another trip.


Molly McCluskey does not own positions in any of the companies mentioned. Follow her finance and travel tweets on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey.

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