How to Find the Cheapest Last-Minute Flights Home for the Holidays
The holidays are quickly approaching, which means everyone will be scrambling over the next couple of weeks to find the cheapest options for flights to wherever home is. There are so many sites to buy them from that it can be hard to know where to start, so we've compiled some tips and tricks for making the process as painless as possible, whether you're flying home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or whenever.
If you don't want to spend all day going from airline to airline, the best way to find the cheapest flight is to use a site that compares them all. There are tons of them out there, but they all serve the same basic purpose. You probably already know about the most popular sites like Kayak, Expedia, and Priceline. Here are some of the lesser-known competitors.
Google bought travel software company ITA in 2011 to be the backbone of Google Flights. The most common praise for the feature is that it's super fast. Unlike most other sites, the page doesn't have to reload if you change one of your search criteria. You can drag and drop your location on a map and sort your options by price in an easy-to-read bar graph.
The only real downside to Google Flights is the inability to book directly from the site. You have to link out to another site to purchase tickets, but that's a small price to pay for a faster and simpler search.
Hipmunk is considered one of the best flight search tools and also shows results for hotels. What sets it apart from other sites is the ability to sort by level of agony. This means your results are displayed in terms of a combination of best price, shortest time, and fewest layovers.
Alternatively, you can use the Pricegraph feature which shows you the prices for all flights from one city to another for the next 90 days.
Momondo lets you search for flights, hotels, and car rentals. Like Google Flights, you can't purchase tickets from Momondo, but it does let you buy directly from the travel provider with no booking fees unlike most third-party sites. It has a colorful, easy-to-use interface and also gives you the option of setting up alerts when prices drop on your desired trip.
The more flexibility you have in your travel plans, the more likely you'll be to find a cheaper flight. The prices of two flights for the exact same route can change dramatically from one day to the next, so if you're not totally tied to one specific day, you can shop around a lot more for the lowest price.
This is another way the flight comparison engines can come in handy. Most of them have an option to show you the flights up to 3 days before and after the date you choose so you can see the prices for those flights, too. Everyone is going to be trying to leave the day before the holiday, so if you can go a day or two earlier you're much more likely to get a lower fare.
Most flight search engines let you setup alerts to your phone or email to let you know when fares go down for your desired flight. That way, you don't have to remember to check back every day. A lot of times the number of tickets available at a discount are limited, so with alerts you won't miss out on deals.
For Thanksgiving tickets, the best time to book has long passed, but you can still save some money by booking and your travel plans on certain days of the week. Tuesday at 3pm Eastern is considered the best time to buy airline tickets.
If you're planning on traveling at Christmas, you should try to buy your tickets at least 3 weeks in advance. The closer it gets to the dates, they're only going to get more expensive, so if you can lock down your travel schedule now you should be able to save a decent chunk of change.
According to FareCompare, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are the cheapest day of the week to travel domestically. Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year and falls on a Thursday, so that means you'd be better off leaving on Tuesday instead of the day before the holiday.
Christmas will be on a Wednesday this year, so your best bet would be to fly in on the Saturday before if at all possible. Friday and Sunday are usually the most expensive days, so try to avoid those if you can. In particular, December 1st and January 5th (both on Sundays) will be two of the most expensive travel days this year because they fall directly after Thanksgiving and New Year's.
Everyone is going to want to leave either first thing in the morning or right after work, so try to avoid those times if you can. Early morning (5am - 7am) and late evening (after 8pm) are better times to depart, and sometimes you can get an even better deal if you're willing to take a red-eye.
Find "Hidden City" Tickets
If you can't find a direct flight that's within your price range, sometimes you can find a flight with multiple destinations that stops in your city. For instance, if you're trying to get from L.A. to New York, you can take a cheaper flight with a different end destination with a layover in New York. When you get to New York, just don't get on the connecting flight to the end destination.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to try this. First, you can only take a carry-on because checked bags aren't returned to their owners until the final destination. Second, it's technically against the airlines' policies, but if you're discreet and don't do it over and over, they probably won't notice.
If you're traveling to or from an area with more than one airport, make sure to check them all. A lot of people only think to check with the large international airports, but if you're traveling domestically you can sometimes find a better deal at a smaller one.
Got any more tips for finding cheap, last-minute holiday flights? Share them with us in the comments below.