You can find plenty of articles touting the "optimal time" to purchase plane tickets, but frankly, I'm not sure I buy it. There is more to finding the best flight deals than scheduling when to hit the "purchase" button down to the minute. Finding a lowest price on a ticket is part art, part science, and sometimes requires a good deal of tenacity and patience.
1. Do your research: Look over a number of websites that aggregate airline information for ticket comparison. By searching across multiple sites, you can ensure you are looking at all of your options and making an informed decision. Whenever searching a ticket, Jacob and I will use Momondo, SkyScanner, and Cheapoair for price and flight comparison. Another advantage of this method is for cross-checking tickets that catch your eye. If you see an airline advertising a specific price across multiple sites, you can be more confident that it's a legitimate deal and not a bait-and-switch scam.
2. Be flexible in your dates and times: Midweek and red-eye flights will always be the cheapest. Often the rock bottom prices advertised by airlines (ie: LA > NYC, only $50!) require flying out on very specific dates. Sometimes you will find as well that pushing your flight date by as little as a week can greatly effect the ticket price. Most aggregate ticket-search websites have an option to view ticket prices on a calendar to pinpoint the cheapest date to fly.
3. Be flexible in your route and destinations: Many areas of the world have excellent budget flight and train options for travel. Take a look at the transportation available, and see if it would be more economical to fly in elsewhere, then take a train to your destination. If you are planning a trip to Europe for example, you may find it significantly cheaper to fly to Berlin, then take a train to Prague, rather than flying directly to Prague. Similarly, you may also find that switching to train-travel is less expensive than the connecting flight the carrier is offering you. One great resource for researching an alternate travel route in Europe is RouteRank, which takes into account the travel time and cost of getting from point A to B by plane, car, train, and bus, or any combination thereof.
4. Keep an eye on the tickets: Buy your tickets too far out, and the price will be higher. Buy your tickets too close to your departure, and the price will be higher. So what's the middle ground? Honestly, that can vary, and for a few months you will notice that the prices only fluctuate by a few dollars. Typically however, purchasing your tickets two months out will lead to the lowest prices. If you are stalking a ticket, there are some who recommend putting your web browser on "incognito mode". Rumors on the internet are stating that websites will crank up your ticket price if they see you revisiting a ticket - I have never experienced that before, but searching in incognito is a small inconvenience if it is true.
5. Try to buy your ticket directly from the airline: If possible, always purchase your ticket from the airline itself. Buying your ticket from other companies and websites is not always a bad idea, but it can complicate things if there is an unexpected difficulty. Airlines are more accommodating with tickets purchased through their services, which can be a help when you are, say, trying to change the name on the ticket. Attempting the same thing with a ticket purchased through a third party can lead to a frustrating game of ping-pong between the airline and the third party.
6. Ask and ye shall receive: When Jacob and I were booking tickets to Vienna, we noticed that the website advertised one price in the summary, and another price (a much higher one), in the details. Rather than accept defeat, I called the airline and asked them why the price was changing back and forth. The agent on the phone told us that the prices were updating because they were selling out of the cheaper tickets, but there were two of the cheaper tickets left on the flight if we wanted to purchase over the phone. No brainer. We paid a $25 booking fee for purchasing over the phone, but saved hundreds of dollars by getting the cheaper tickets. Moral of the story? It never hurts to ask.
What have you found to be some of your best strategies for finding cheap tickets?
** This post is in honor of a dear friend, Wendy Hudson, whose experience and wisdom in travel is enough to fill a book.