How do you actually get those cheap flights through airline sales? We asked transaction experts.

We’ve seen them all in our inbox: $49 Southwest fares! JetBlue’s $44 flights! London on United for 22,000 points! But if you’ve struggled to get such a low rate, you’re not alone. Although advertised airfare sales seem enticing, it may seem impossible to take advantage of them.

“I would say there’s usually a lot of smoke, not a lot of fire when it comes to announced airline sales,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. With a multitude of terms and conditions, offers tend to be restrictive and may be less beneficial to travelers than they appear. But they can influence other fares, and sometimes you might even find that plane ticket golden.

We spoke to travel experts to find out how to navigate airline sales and promotions and how to increase your chances of getting a deal no matter what.

– Read the fine print

Zach Griff, senior reporter at The Points Guy, said blowout sales with terms such as “fares as low as $X” primarily serve to lure travelers to an airline’s website. “It’s really there largely to generate marketing buzz, buzz among the press,” he said.

When customers visit these sites, Griff said, the offers are only as good as the asterisk indicating their terms and conditions. “You’ll see there are a lot of exclusions, travel dates, booking deadlines and travel deadlines,” he said.

Advertised sales also tend to feature certain types of routes. “The cheapest fares that are typically available in an advertised sale almost always tend to be short-haul flights that aren’t very expensive to start with,” Keyes said, such as New York to Boston or Los Angeles to San Francisco. . “They can very cleverly bundle 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 certain 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 advertised fare. “It must be very low, single digits,” he said.

– Compare and nuance

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

Competitors may also have lower rates during sales. “Airlines are notorious for matching each other’s fares,” Keyes said. He noted, however, that the practice is less common during announced sales than other times when airlines cut prices.

For a full view of the options, Griff recommends checking out Google Flights. Based on stored flight data, the service can tell travelers whether a fare is above or below average, and how it has changed over time. “This is really actionable information that I always recommend people take action on,” he said.

– Look beyond advertised offers

Keyes said the best deals for travelers aren’t the ones the airlines put out. “It’s the unadvertised sales that are the real goldmines,” he said.

He’s recently seen deals such as $300 round-trip flights to Paris and $187 trips to Cancun, which airlines don’t have to promote. “These fares sell out,” he said. Without the cost of an advertising campaign and the risk of disappointing customers who don’t advertise the fare, the price cut quietly gives airlines more flexibility, Keyes said.

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

“The best way to take advantage of these deals is to use a tool that monitors them so you know when they’re available on the routes you’re actually interested in,” said Hayley Berg, Hopper’s price intelligence manager.

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

– Be flexible

That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take advantage of a high-profile airline promotion. Keyes said that at least every two weeks one of the major airlines has a sale announced.

“They’ll find an excuse,” he said. “’Oh, it’s our 50th anniversary. Oh, it’s Presidents Day. He added that low-cost airlines such as Spirit run these promotions more frequently than other types of carriers because their customer base is made up more of leisure travelers, who are more price-sensitive.

Berg said passengers could 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 offers like this 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 maybe they could fly JFK to Fort Lauderdale, rent a car, and drive the rest of the way to a deal. .”

Advertised deals may also only apply to one-way flights, but to find a deal, customers can book their trip on multiple airlines. “Mixing and matching the airlines you choose to fly with can significantly reduce costs,” Mark Crossey, US travel expert at Skyscanner, said in an email.

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

For domestic travel, this period is approximately one to three months before a trip, while it extends between two and eight months for international travel. For travel at peak times, like midsummer or around Christmas and New Years, Keyes recommended setting a few months on those windows.

– Consider the big picture

Offers are not limited to an airline’s fare. Berg noted that Hopper and other similar companies offer their own promotions. These types of deals give customers the option to “combine flight and hotel for a lower overall rate,” she said.

Crossey also noted that on-flight sales “do not always mean the lowest prices.” While a carrier has a sale, a low-cost airline may have an even cheaper fare, just as full-service airlines may hold a sale offering better prices than a low-cost carrier. “When it comes to airline pricing, context is everything,” he said.

As for those buzzing advertised sales, Keyes warned travelers not to get their hopes up. “It never hurts to poke around,” he said. “Maybe once in a while you can strike gold, but nine times out of ten it won’t result in a cheap flight like you would like.”

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