Plane flight. Photo by Artturi Jalli, Unsplash

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Air travel should be affordable and accessible, but too often we get stung by excessive fees and inflated fares from airlines. From charging for basic amenities like meals and checked bags to tacking on ridiculous fees for things like pillows, it seems there’s no limit to what they’ll nickel-and-dime us for. As the summer travel season ramps up, it’s time to get savvy about stretching your air travel budget and learning to unlock the secrets of cheap flights through flexibility and smart strategies.

Be an Early Bird

The earliest flights of the day are typically the cheapest. Data shows that fares are generally lowest for those crack-of-dawn departures first thing in the morning for domestic routes. You can score serious savings if you don’t mind starting your travel day bright and early. Other budget-friendly flight times can include lunch hours, late afternoons, and red-eyes overnight.

However, the best time to book domestic flights for the lowest prices is Tuesday at 3 pm Eastern. This seems to be when airlines coordinate sales and release discounted inventory. For international travel, the best fares tend to be released early in the morning.

Stay on Top of Deals

Sign up for free airfare alerts and be ready to pounce on short-lived discounts and flash sales. Many sites rely on human experts to vet and pass along only the deals that are truly worth booking. They’ll ping you when prices seriously drop for routes you want. Some airlines will also blast out limited-time offers through email and social media that can get scooped up within hours, so turn on notifications and be ready to bite.

Consider tapping into a “flight hacker” service for more in-depth and personalized expertise. You provide your travel preferences and requirements, and their specialty fare sleuths will scour for amazing routings and obscure money-saving tricks even seasoned travelers miss.

Let the Deals Guide Your Destination

Instead of fixating on a specific destination, use any online tool to open yourself up to destinations all over the map with particularly cheap fares from your home airport that week. You set a budget, and it’ll instantly map out everywhere you can fly within those parameters, letting the deals guide your wanderlust. For a low fixed fee, human-expert tools can also tailor recommendations to your interests.

Mix It Up

Don’t feel beholden to a single airline or alliance. With most major carriers unbundling fares and offering one-way pricing, it can pay to create a custom itinerary by combining legs from different airlines to take advantage of varying price quirks in their systems. You can fly out with one airline and return with another. You might even find it’s cheaper to fly into one airport for your destination and out of a different one nearby. Just don’t forget to factor in transportation costs between airports.

The same flexible thinking applies to connections. While nonstops are nice, you can often save big by embracing connections and building an itinerary with two or more segments. Review prices to see if particularly cheap fares are available from your hometown to a hub, and then a separate cheap flight from there to your final destination. Get creative and keep an open mind.

Be Prepared to Adapt

Unless you have inflexible obligations, aim to keep your travel schedule flexible by a couple of days before and after your desired dates. This allows you to capitalize on temporary price drops and spot discounts that may only be available for departing a day earlier or later than originally planned. Similarly, being open to slightly repositioning your travel to alternative nearby airports can unlock additional savings if another nearby airport is served by a low-cost carrier or is experiencing a fare war.

Time It Right

While conventional wisdom is to book about 6 weeks in advance for domestic trips to get the best fares on average, the reality is that prices can fluctuate rapidly in response to demand and competition. Monitor fares regularly once you know your travel period using tools like free alerts to avoid disappointment. Policies like 24-hour cancellation and rebooking windows allow you to lock in an acceptable price early but still take advantage of falling rates closer to the travel dates.

Earn for Free Flights

In addition to shopping smart, don’t overlook opportunities to earn rewards points and frequent flyer miles that you can redeem for free or discounted travel. Rewards credit cards, e-shopping portals, paid survey sites, and other loyalty programs can help build your balance without flying. You may be able to use these currencies to book an entire trip for free, secure an upgrade, or reduce out-of-pocket costs by redeeming part of your fare.

Be Strategic About Airport Choice

Savvy travelers know that prices can vary significantly between nearby airports serving the same general destination. If you live in an area with multiple major airports within driving distance, it’s worth checking all fares. Similarly, when deciding on connections, consider alternate routing through an airport where you know budget carriers operate or fierce competition drives down prices. A slightly longer initial positioning flight can enable major savings on the next leg.

Sometimes, the cheapest option may involve an entirely different city. For trips to Hawaii, for example, West Coasters can often save by flying to Las Vegas or Los Angeles first to pick up an affordable flight to the islands rather than booking directly from their hometown airport.

The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t take inflated airfares lying down. You can stretch your travel budget further by having a flexible mindset, knowing the best times to book, and employing clever strategies and stacking tactics. Stop overpaying for flights and start unlocking the secrets to affordable travel instead!

Go World Travel Magazine

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