Here’s how I buy plane tickets (flying coast to coast a lot). A few people have expressed interest. I generally pay $100 to $200 per person per leg for my flights. If that’s better than you get, read this. If that’s worse than you get, give me advice! Three caveats
a) What do I know. I’m new to this. If you know better, please add information here.
b) The economy of airline pricing is changing constantly. A lot of the principles here may not be true a year from now, who knows. But it’s been true for me for a couple years.
c) This isn’t using lots of Serious Frequently Flyer tricks. If you’re a constant flyer, you shouldn’t be taking advice from me. Go check out www.flyertalk.com
d) I've never used a travel agent. Maybe they actually add enough value to make this all pointless? I have no idea.
(One of these is not a caveat. Can you find which one?)
1. One way tickets: currently almost all airlines offer round trip tickets that are just the combined prices of the individual one way tickets. There’s no savings to buying round trip (I invite you to check this yourself, by finding a good round trip ticket, and then looking at the price of each individual leg.)
Now airline prices vary a lot, both from day to day, and airline to airline. Even if you found the cheapest price that one leg of your journey will ever be, doesn’t mean that today is ALSO the day that the other leg will be cheapest, or even on that airline. Heck if you’re in a big city, you might arrive and leave via different airports. Treat the 2 legs like completely different purchases. Buy one leg once it’s a good deal, and wait for the other leg to become affordable (and look at other flights).
Corollary: package deals of any types (round trip, hotels, etc) are pretty much always horrible compared to just buying all the pieces individually at the cheapest rate.
2. Search engines: Currently I’m using bing.com/travel for most of my ticket purchasing, which is based off of http://www.itasoftware.com/ which just got purchased by Google, so kind of hoping soon Google will have something even better. Anyway, it’s got a price predictor for whether now is a good time to buy tickets or not. Now the predictor only works for round trip tickets, so often you won’t be able to use it literally. But any good geek can use a Bayesian set of several round trip tickets, and get an idea of whether it’s a good time to buy for each leg.
Make sure to set up the searches such that it uses all available airports that you might use. For instance when I’m staying in Princeton, NJ I tell Bing that I’m flying out of Allentown PA Airport. Not because any flights leave there, but because that gives me a radius including the airports: Newark and PHL, which is actually what I want to compare.
(Lastly a warning: the price predictor kind of sucks for holiday weekends. Don’t rely on it too much for them.)
3. Frequent Flyer Miles: don’t spend these as soon as you get them. What I prefer is to save them and use them for the worst flights, that violate certain rules that I’ve laid down here. If for some reason everything has gone wrong and I have to pay $500 for a leg, it’s great to use the miles instead of getting killed.
4. Timing: Start looking several months out, but that doesn’t mean buy immediately. Try to make sure you have a ticket by 2 weeks before you fly. Interestingly in the last week, prices will either drop or rise precipitously. Either the plane is full and the last remaining tickets are hella expensive OR often you may find that the plane is empty and the airline is desperate to sell anything. It’s a risk.
(Using frequent flyer miles the week before the flight can entail a $75 charge or so, but it could be a good Expected Value decision to wait to see what happens the final week, buy if prices are cheap, or use FF miles if prices are high.)
5. Layovers: 25% of flights are late by 15 minutes or more. That statistic should terrify anyone trying to make a close layover. Only take layovers that have 70 minutes or more between flights, unless you’re comfortable being a day late to your destination. [Edit: websites and airlines will sell flights with much shorter layovers. You just have to look at the layover length, and ignore that flight. It's not a real flight to you, unless you're fine with missing the connection.] And a leg with two or more layovers, I just kind of give up and accept something will go wrong. Buying a non-stop ticket can really be worth it, if you strongly value all your time at the destination.
If you’re going to take a risky layover, it’s better when it’s a morning flight than an evening flight. If you miss a morning connection, hopefully you’ll get another in a couple hours. Miss an evening connection, you’ll have to wait all night.
6. Most flights are business flights, and so the most expensive time to fly is when businesspeople are flying. BE EXTREMELY FLEXIBLE ABOUT WHAT TIME OF DAY YOU COULD FLY. You could easily save $200 by flying earlier or later in the day. Sometimes more if selection is bad. Sometimes you just have to fly when you have to fly, but at the very least you should always look at what you are paying for in getting the exact time you want. Is it really worth $200 to not leave work 2 hours early? Etc.
7. Always buy directly from the airline. No matter what ticket a website might tell you, there's no good reason you can't just take those flight details, go to the airline website, log in with your frequent flyer #, and buy it directly. Anytime a problem comes up, or you need miles credit, or anything, it's so much better to not have a third party to go through.
8. International flights: I know rather little about international flights, other than them being hella expensive. I have at least found this: If you are flying from out of the US to a location in the US besides a major international port, it is MUCH CHEAPER to buy this as 2 legs: 1 ticket to land in the US, and another ticket a few hours later to go from the major airport to your final destination. I don't know why, but I encourage you to compare any international flights you buy this way.