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Hacking Airfare Basics (A Travel Hacking Guide)


Hacking airfare is just about the most common travel hacking practice these days. Here are some tips on how to maximize effectiveness and minimize spending.

Updated: 2017-07-03; Originally Published: 2011-10-02.
travel hacking cover photoThere are components of the travel machine that are able to be hacked, but the most associated one is hacking airfare. Even this can be broken down into several different parts, as some fliers prefer to do anything to obtain insanely cheap or free fares by earning miles, and others pay for seemingly ludicrous flights where they may fly to a far off destination and return the same day, all to earn up towards elite status with their chosen airline. Here are some steps and suggestions to get you started on your way to become an airfare hacking genius in no time:

Hacking Airfare: Establish Your Ceiling

Your first step should always be to establish a baseline, or ceiling, for which to rate all other fares you come across. This is done by picking a fare search aggregator (searches multiple sites at once), such as Kayak, Momondo, Mobissimo, or SkyScanner. These websites offer great fares as it is, as they collectively search over 200 websites, including airline’s business sites, travel booking engines like Priceline, and more obscure sites like StudentUniverse. Popular aggregators such as these are the best way to start your search, because they offer the lowest fares that are conventionally available, usually. More advanced users may like to use ITA Software.

Hacking Airfare: Reverse Check

After you have found a decent fare to use as your baseline, you probably see a particular flight or flights with a certain airline that is the fairest of them all. If the destination is international, you can do what I like to call the reverse check; that is, checking the airline’s website from the other end. For example, you are in the States, and you booked yourself a trip to Shanghai already. Before you leave, you decide to add a little side trip over to Lhasa, Tibet for a few days, since you are already over on that side of the world. After looking at Kayak, you see a fare like this:

Travel Hacking Airfare Example 1
Kayak.com locates this fare from PVG-LXA for $963 USD, including taxes.

But you need to know one very important rule: Airfares are usually cheaper when booked from the originating country. This is due mostly to hefty taxes that a company must pay to sell the ticket to customers abroad. Airlines have offices in the locations that they fly to, to allow them to do business within these other countries. However, this does not mean that fares are even all across the board with one airline.  So, let’s mosey on over to the China Eastern Air website. Instead of choosing the USA site to look for this fare, we’ll say that we want to visit China’s site (English is still available), http://en.ceair.com/, since this flight will originate in Shanghai. When looking up the exact same flight/dates/times, it will look like this:

Travel Hacking Airfare Example 2
The total cost of the exact same flight from the Chinese version of the site is 3,590 CNY/RMB.

Since we are in CEA’s China site, we see the fare in Yuan (CNY / RMB / ¥). ¥3,590 is the total cost of that same flight that we found for $963 on Kayak. Now we need to convert the CNY to USD so we can figure out if there is a price difference and how large. XE.com is where I usually turn to, as currency conversion is updated in real time. The conversion is quite startling – The exchange rate to the US Dollar makes this airfare $562.78!

Travel Hacking Airfare Example 3

This is a $400 difference, almost half the cost that Kayak originally quoted. Another way to hack international flights is to go against what your mother may have told you and book one-way flights. If you book each one-way from its originating country’s site, you may find cheaper fares this way also, but we’ll talk about that in detail in another post. Either way, you can see that this is a viable and valuable option to try when flying internationally.

Hacking Airfare: Know When to Fly

We all know that off-peak travel will be cheaper than peak, but let’s get more specific. When flying domestically, the cheapest day to fly, on 95% of cases, is on Wednesday. Tuesdays and Saturdays are similarly cheap; You want to avoid Fridays and Sundays, as most people are either leaving after the work week on Friday, or scrambling back on Sunday before it begins again. The cheapest times in the day to fly are usually the first early-morning flights out, and the later flights, especially the red-eye overnights.

Knowing when to fly also means that you should know when to book. Tuesday (around 3pm, according to FareCompare.com) is the best day of the week to book these domestic fares, as that seems to be the time when discounted fares are posted. Waiting until Thursday will probably see that your fare climbs back up, as airlines jack the price up for weekend ticket searchers. Generally, whatever seems to be the most inconvenient for the most people will probably be the cheapest (booking on Tues, flying on Wed, etc.). The upside to all this inconvenience is that you are more likely to get lucky enough to not have someone sitting next to you.

Hacking Airfare: Be Flexible

Being flexible is key to driving costs down wherever you shop, and it is no different when it comes to airfare search. Dates are the most important factor to try to be flexible with, as you saw in the previous paragraph. If possible, use an airfare search aggregator that also allows you to search +/-3 days, which pretty much means that you are searching an entire week of dates, both for your departure and your return. For example, searching Jan 4 to Jan 13 for a fare, using the +/-3 day option will allow you to search from Jan 1-7 for your departure (3 days on either side of the original departure date) and Jan 10-16 coming back. This gives you exponentially more options, saves you from plugging single numbers in one at a time, and will almost certainly expose lower fares.

Updated: 2017-07-03
Reason: Migration of site from the old, long URL (www.dauntlessjaunter.com) to this long-overdue shorter one 🙂 (we may have updated some typos or metadata while we were at it)

Written by
Christian Eilers
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