Coming from the UK, one thing I noticed once I moved to the U.S is that domestic flights here can be much more expensive than say, a flight from London to Paris or London to Barcelona. Back in Europe, cheap airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet have made European travel very cheap indeed, with flights sometimes costing as low as £10. It’s crazy when you think about it.
Here in the U.S, round trip flights between states seem to cost around $200 or more on average. Not exactly cheap. There are however certain tricks to getting the best deals and cheaper fares, so here I’ll give you the lowdown on how to get cheap domestic flights:
Book in advance
You probably know this one already, but domestic flights are usually cheaper if you book far in advance and get more expensive closer to the departure date. Of course this isn’t always true – sometimes airlines lower their prices if there’s a lack of demand – but on the whole this rule usually applies for both domestic and international flights. Try to book at least a month or two in advance if you can as flights tend to start going up drastically about two weeks before the departure date.
Monitor flight prices with Hopper
In order to gauge the best time to buy, you can download the Hopper app, which analyzes billions of prices daily to predict how prices will change, and tells you whether to buy now or wait. You can also pay a deposit to freeze a price for 14 days – if the price increases you get the price you locked in, or if it goes down you pay the lower price. It’s a great app for monitoring flight prices so you can save money on flights.
Use multiple flight search engines
Always using Skyscanner to book flights? There are many other flight comparison sites that may find you cheaper fares, so try searching on all of them to see what fare you can get. These include:
Kayak – I personally love using Kayak because it allows you to search exact dates or dates +/- 3 days to find the best fare. You can also select “track prices” and Kayak will send you an email if the price changes. Kayak sorts searches under tabs such as “cheapest”, “best” and “quickest” so you can easily choose the right option for you. This search engine also mixes and matches flights with different airlines, so it might show an outbound flight on American and a return flight on Delta to give you the cheapest fare.
Momondo – Very similar in features to Kayak, Momondo allows you to set up price alerts, tells you whether it’s a good time to book and shows you “hacker fares” mixing and matching airlines to get the best price. They also show a handy little chart that shows you how the price varies across the course of the month. A new feature also allows you to sort flights based on least CO₂ footprint.
Google Flights – Another powerful flight search tool is Google Flights, which has a super simple interface and is very easy to use. It also features a date grid and price graph, so you can see how fares measure up over the course of the month/year. You don’t have to enter a specific city; you can also search a wider area, such as “Texas” or “Florida” – pretty neat!
Expedia – One feature that’s nice about Expedia is that when you click on the flight search results, you can easily see a table of the airline’s bag fees to see how much the trip would cost you with bags.
Go to Southwest.com
Southwest won’t show up when you do a search on flight comparison sites because annoyingly they don’t allow their flight results to be aggregated or offered by third parties. They offer affordable fares and not one but TWO checked bags for free per customer. So always check Southwest.com to see if you can get a good fare. When you run a search, they have a low fare calendar so you can compare prices across the entire month.
Try Skiplagged & hidden city fares
Skiplagged.com exposes inefficiencies in airline pricing, such as hidden-city, to find you special flight deals. While I haven’t used it myself yet, I have a friend who swears by this site. Hidden city ticketing allows you to get cheaper non-stop flights by booking a flight that connects in your destination, but continues on somewhere else.
So for instance, say you want to go from New York to Atlanta.
You might find that the flight price from New York to Austin with a stopover in Atlanta is cheaper than just booking a direct flight from New York to Atlanta.
Essentially you book a flight from New York to Austin, but walk out of the airport in Atlanta and you don’t get on your connecting flight.
It’s important to note that if you don’t show up for your connecting flight that the airline will cancel the rest of your ticket. So this only works if you book separate one-way tickets.
Avoid the weekends
Most people want to take getaways on the weekend when they have time off work. The most expensive times tend to be Friday after work and Sunday afternoon when people are returning home. So if you can fly outside of the weekend you’ll probably be able to find a cheaper flight. Sometimes my friends simply have to travel on a weekend because they can’t take too many days off work, so we’ll look at leaving on a Thursday and returning on a Monday. The more flexible you can be the better. Tuesdays and Wednesdays have been shown to be the cheapest days to fly – Airfare Watchdog has a great article detailing the best days of the week to fly for different carriers. Sometimes late night flights and very early morning flights are also cheaper than those that are right in the middle of the day.
Collect air miles
One thing that sucked about living in the UK was that there are less air miles credit cards available, so it’s much harder over there to utilize miles to get free flights. Over here in the U.S you have many options for earning miles.
Personally I stick to one airline for miles, Delta. I have the Delta Skymiles Platinum credit card which gives me points every time I spend, along with extra points for Delta purchases, hotels, dining and groceries. More miles = more opportunities to redeem for free flights.
The trick is to use your air miles credit card for everything, including things like food shopping, restaurant meals, gas and clothes shopping. To earn even more miles I use the Delta Skymiles Shopping button, which shows me if I can earn extra miles by shopping with certain retailers online. Delta also often sends me emails when retailers are running bonus miles offers. I even have my Lyft account linked to my Skymiles account so that I earn miles every time I order a ride.
Some people use their credit card to pay their rent, although most tenant portals charge hefty processing fees for using a credit card versus a bank account or debit card, so watch out for that.
I’ve used Delta as an example here because that’s what I use, but other airlines offer something similar.
Some popular air miles credit cards you can sign up for include:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – great all-round card with good signup bonus, $95 annual fee
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card –
- CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® – good for business owners, annual fee $99
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card – good for Delta flyers, $99 annual fee
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card – good for frequent Delta flyers, $250 annual fee
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® – gets you Admirals Club membership, $450 annual fee
- United Explorer Card – good for United flyers, $95 annual fee
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card – good for Alaska flyers, $75 annual fee
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card – good for business owners who fly Southwest, $199 annual fee
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card – good for Delta Sky Club Access & status boosts, $550 annual fee
- JetBlue Plus Card – good for JetBlue, $99 annual fee
Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights
Another way to get cheap tickets is to have someone else do the searching for you. That’s where Scott’s Cheap Flights comes in. I’ve written a full review here. Scott’s Cheap Flights is an email newsletter service that sends flight alerts to your email inbox and it works best if you can be flexible with when/where you want to travel. The premium version costs $49 per year and includes 5x more deals, including domestic deals to cities, beaches and national parks in the US. You also get notified if airlines publish mistake fares or rare deals on flights so that you can snag them before it’s too late. When you setup your account you can select your home airport and surrounding airports so that Scott’s Cheap Flights can notify you of deals departing from your home city.
Fly Budget Airlines like Spirit Airlines or JetBlue
Legacy carriers like American Airlines, Delta and United are often more expensive than budget carriers such as Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Some may argue the seats are more uncomfortable or the service isn’t as good but at the end of the day, if you want to get the cheapest domestic fare and you’re willing to suck it up for a few hours then go with the cheapest airline. I’ve flown Spirit Airlines a lot – even to places like Colombia – and I love them for their cheap deals. Budget airlines are often no-frills and charge extra for things like bags and food and drinks, but you can choose to take your own food or fly without bags.
Assess the cost of cabin bags
Always check how much cabin and checked bags cost. If the flight is cheap but the cost of taking a cabin bag is $40 each way, then it might work out to be more expensive than flying with an airline that offers a free cabin bag.
On Delta for instance you can take one cabin bag and one personal item for free. Since I have the Delta Skymiles Platinum credit card, I also get a free checked bag as one of the perks of the card.
Spirit Airlines on the other hand charges for cabin bags. It varies by flight route but currently for a flight from LGA to LAX the bag fee would be $38 each way at the time of booking, $48 during online check-in or $67 at the gate.
Always add compare the totals of flights after bags and fees. You might find that one flight seems cheaper initially but gets more expensive with bags.
Fly with just a personal item
Alternatively can do what I sometimes do, and fly without a cabin bag or a checked bag at all. If I fly Spirit Airlines I travel with just a small backpack and only a couple of outfits, because a small backpack counts as a “personal item”. I roll my clothes up to save space and pack only the bare essentials. This really only works if you’re going to warm destinations or places for just a couple of days.
Use incognito mode and clear cookies
Fares can change according to the number of searches a particular flight is receiving. Ever been looking at a flight a few times and then suddenly the price goes up and you feel the urge to book now before it goes even higher? It could be because you’ve been checking over and over again. Cookies keep track of your data so that websites can give a more “personalized” experience and possibly determine what price they will show you. Clear your cookies or use incognito mode in your browser to get the lowest fare.
Choose the most basic fare
Airlines will offer different levels of economy fares. While the most basic fare is usually non-refundable and non-changeable, it will also be the cheapest option.
Use your air miles for last minute trips
Last minute trips can sometimes get very expensive, particularly during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you can’t afford the cost of the ticket, try looking at how much it will cost you in air miles. If you’ve been accumulating miles through credit cards, online shopping and flights, you might find you have enough to make it to your destination after all.
In general I always assess the cost of using air miles vs the cost of paying for a ticket. If a particular flight is cheap then I’ll pay with money and save my air miles for a more expensive route.
Get a companion voucher
Some credit cards offer you a companion voucher upon card renewal, which can work out quite handy if you’re often traveling with a friend or partner. Then all you have to do is pay for a ticket and your companion comes for free.
Credit cards that come with companion vouchers include:
Use free 24 hour cancellation if the price drops
When you book a flight in the US you get 24 hours to cancel if you change your mind. So if you see that the flight price goes down the next day you could simply cancel your booking and make a new one.
A final word
Sometimes no matter how hard you look you can’t get your flight for dirt cheap but it’s always worth using the above tricks to get cheap domestic flights. Being flexible and collecting air miles are the keys really to traveling within the US.