My husband is about to turn 50. He has visions of his feet in white sand, bottomless drinks, and me running slo-mo down a beautiful beach, Baywatch style, as our kids happily frolic nearby. I may not be able to rock that iconic red one-piece without scaring the locals, but I can book our family on a flight somewhere memorable to mark his milestone. That I can do.
I didn't think my airfare search would stress me out as much as bathing suit shopping with a C-section pouch, but it did. Scoring good travel deals requires patience, planning, and perseverance. Here’s what I learned on my journey to find affordable airfare for my family of four.
- Plan Ahead -- But Not Too Far Ahead. Knowing when to buy flights saves serious cash. As a general rule, book at least 21 days in advance. The chances of securing amazing last-minute fares for your family without wanting to pull your hair out strand by strand are small. Plan ahead to avoid a premium for booking too late (within 14 days) or too early (more than 5 months). You'll also save money at the hair salon; knowing your flight details in advance means fewer gray hairs. Trust me.
- Some Days Are Cheaper. The day of the week you fly on can make a huge difference. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are typically the least expensive flights, and Friday and Sunday are the most costly. If you're traveling for the weekend, consider Saturday to Monday or Tuesday instead of a Thursday or Friday to Sunday trip. Tuesday to Tuesday is often the cheapest for a full week. Better yet, be flexible and check a bunch of alternate dates around the same time period because airlines, like kids, can be unpredictable.
- Shop Around! I know you’re busy, but resist the temptation of booking the first fare you see. There are so many resources online to compare flights, dates, and prices. Kayak pulls from hundreds of airlines and travel sites to deliver deals. It pays to fly when no one else wants to (i.e., red-eyes) or before or after holidays. I also subscribe to sites such as TravelZoo because it handpicks the best fares and sends them to my inbox every week.
- Break Up the Family if Needed. This one sounds crazy, I know. Big families get the price breaks, right? Nope. Airlines limit the number of seats per flight they sell at the lowest rate, so you can price yourself out of a good deal by having too many passengers. If an airline has two seats remaining on a flight at $200 and a bunch of other seats available for $250, a search for a group of five will show the $250 rate. But if you search for two seats, you will get two for $200 and only have to pay the extra $50 for the remaining three. You can probably get everyone together when you pick your seat assignments.
- Baggage Fees Can Weigh You Down. Most airlines charge for checked bags, and some even charge carry-on fees! It’s important to factor those fees into your purchase decision. Only two domestic carriers, JetBlue and Southwest, let your first suitcase slide (see websites for specifics). If you opt for an airline with baggage fees, pay them ahead of time because they may charge a premium if you wait until you get to the airport.
- Check Alternate Airports. If there is more than one airport near you or your destination city, check them both. I live between the Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island airports and can personally attest fares vary quite a bit. It’s worth the extra step during your search.
- Buy on a Site That Offers Payback. Many airlines will pay you the difference if the price of your itinerary drops before your trip. Sites like CheapAir offer Price Drop Payback and mix and match fares from multiple airlines to put money back in your handbag.
- Sign Up for Airline Emails & Frequent Flier Programs. You should never play hard-to-get when you’re chasing airfare. The airlines want to build a relationship with you, so they will send you promo codes and deals if you sign up for their emails. Frequent flier miles also add up so make sure you set up an account. You may also want to apply for an airline credit card. My uncle takes his entire family (including children and grandchildren) to Hawaii every year using points. He pays all of his household bills with his airline credit card every month to accrue points. He doesn’t incur interest fees because he pays it off every month, but he does gain thousands of points. Brilliant.
- Use Social Media. Some prime deals are posted on social media sites for a short time. Follow every airline you’re interested in on Twitter and log on several times a day. You can also follow @Airfarewatchdog for tweet alerts with promo codes and other airfare deals. Some airline Facebook pages are also quite active. It pays to add them to your daily social media fix to save money on fares for your family.
What are your best tips for saving money on airfare?
Image via ARZTSAMUI/Flickr