How to actually get cheap flights from airline sales

“I would say there’s generally a lot of smoke, not a lot of fire when…

“I would say there’s generally a lot of smoke, not a lot of fire when it comes to advertised airline sales,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. With a slew of terms and conditions, the deals tend to be restrictive and can be less advantageous for travelers than they appear. But they can influence other fares, and occasionally you might even find that golden plane ticket.

We spoke to travel experts about how to navigate airline sales and promotions, and how to increase your chances of finding a deal no matter what.

Zach Griff, senior reporter at the Points Guy, said splashy sales with language like “fares as low as X dollars,” primarily serve to draw travelers to an airline’s website. “That is really there largely to generate marketing buzz, buzz among the press,” he said.

When customers visit those sites, Griff said, the deals are only as good as the asterisk denoting their terms and conditions. “You’ll see that there are lots of exclusions, dates of travel, book-by dates and travel-by dates,” he said.

Advertised sales also tend to feature certain types of routes. “The cheapest fares that are available typically in an advertised sale tend to almost always be short-haul flights that are not terribly expensive to begin with,” Keyes said, such as New York to Boston or Los Angeles to San Francisco. “They can very cleverly lump in a cheap fare on those routes with more expensive fares on other routes and they can say, you know, ‘It starts at $49.’”

Keyes added that airlines often only have a select number of seats available at the price used in an advertisement. With so many limitations, he said, only a small percentage of people looking at flights during a given promotion are able to get the lowest fare advertised. “It’s got to be very low, single digits,” he said.

Even if you aren’t able to get the fare in big, bold letters on the ad, it’s worth looking at flights while a promotion is going on. Griff said that while your trip might not fit the parameters laid out in the fine print, airlines will often discount other fares at the same time — just not by as much.

Competitors may have lower fares during sales, too. “Airlines are notorious for matching one another’s fares,” Keyes said. He noted, however, the practice is less common during advertised sales than other times that airlines slash prices.

To get a comprehensive view of the options, Griff recommends looking at Google Flights. Based on stored flight data, the service can tell travelers whether a fare is higher or lower than average, and how it has changed over time. “Those are really actionable insights that I always recommend people act off,” he said.

Look beyond advertised deals

Keyes said the best deals for travelers aren’t the ones airlines are putting marketing muscle behind. “It’s the unadvertised sales that are the real gold mines,” he said.

He has recently seen deals such as $300 round-trip flights to Paris and $187 trips to Cancún, which airlines don’t have to promote. “Those fares sell themselves,” he said. Without the cost of an ad campaign and the risk of disappointing customers who don’t get the fare publicized, slashing prices quietly gives the airlines more flexibility, Keyes argued.

To keep tabs on the market, Keyes’s Scott’s Cheap Flights, Google Flights, travel app Hopper, Skyscanner and other services allow travelers to set up price alerts so they’ll know when there’s a great deal.

“The best way to take advantage of those deals is to be using a tool that’s monitoring for them so that you know when they’re available on the routes you’re actually interested in,” said Hayley Berg, Hopper’s head of price intelligence.

Griff suggested that travelers book a desirable fare when they see it, as fares on all flights to, from and within the United States can be canceled within 24 hours for a full refund — with some exceptions. Customers can also use products like Hopper’s “Price Freeze” tool, Berg said, which temporarily locks in a price for a small deposit.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take advantage of a much-hyped airline promotion. Keyes said that at least every other week, one of the major airlines has an advertised sale.

“They’ll find an excuse,” he said. “‘Oh, it’s our 50th birthday. Oh, it’s Presidents’ Day.” He added that budget airlines such as Spirit run those promotions more frequently than other types of carriers, as their clientele is made up more of leisure travelers, who are more sensitive to pricing.

Berg said passengers might find the low price they’re looking for on a route that gets them close enough to their destination.

“I would say we often see really good discount deals like that to more regional airports,” Berg said. “I think sometimes travelers get very stuck in their minds, you know, ‘I want to fly JFK to Miami,’ but they might be able to fly JFK to Fort Lauderdale, rent a car and drive the rest of the way for a deal.”

Advertised deals may also only apply to one-way flights, but to find a deal, customers could book their trip on more than one airline. “Mixing and matching the airlines you choose to fly with can seriously cut costs,” Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert at Skyscanner, said in an email.

In general, when it comes to cheap-flight hunting, Keyes said, flexibility is key, with three main areas to think about: where you go, when you go there, and when you book. Keyes said travelers looking for affordable fares should book in the “Goldilocks windows,” not too far in advance of travel and not too close to departure. “That’s when cheap flights are most likely to pop up,” he said.

For domestic travel, that period is about one to three months ahead of a trip, while it widens to between two and eight months for international travel. For trips at peak times, like the middle of summer or around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Keyes recommended tacking a couple of months onto those windows.

Deals aren’t limited to an airline’s fare. Berg noted that Hopper and other similar companies offer their own promotions. Those kinds of offers give customers the option of “packaging together a flight and a hotel to get a lower overall rate,” she said.

Crossey also noted that sales on flights “don’t always mean the lowest prices.” While one carrier has a sale, a budget airline might have an even cheaper fare, just as full-service airlines might run a sale offering better prices than a low-cost carrier. “When it comes to airline prices, context is everything,” he said.

As for those buzzy advertised sales, Keyes cautioned travelers not to get their hopes up. “It never hurts to poke around,” he said. “Maybe every once in a while you’ll be able to strike gold, but nine times out of ten it’s not going to end up resulting in a cheap flight that you would want.”