So you think getting a cheap airfare is as simple as calling your favorite airline (the one with the honey-roasted peanuts) and forking over your credit card number. Unless you are traveling on someone else's dime, you couldn't be more misguided. Or perhaps you are a wishful traveler who scours the newspaper's travel section looking for the lowest fares advertised, only to find none of them are ever available on the weekends you want to go. So you stay home and play solitaire. Loser. You're a loser not because you play solitaire (it's a great game!) but because you didn't bother to try to get a cheap airline ticket.

Getting the lowest airfare from Point A to Point B can be a ridiculously frustrating experience, especially if in mid-flight you discover your neighbor paid a third what you did. (Unfortunately, murder charges still stick in federal airspace.) The way airlines work, failing to get the best fare happens more often than you would like to believe. This SYW will help guide you through airfare hell to make sure you are the one with the cheapest seat. Then you'll be the one everyone wants to kill.


Airline pricing is a complex, unpredictable beast driven by three ugly words: competition, demand, and inventory. Airlines call it "yield management," but we doubt if even airline CEOs fully understand it. How could they? How can any rational person explain why a one-way flight is just as expensive as a round-trip ticket? Or why the only seats from Boston to San Francisco every weekend from now until eternity cost $1,000? Well, you found us in the nick of time, because before you even attempt to buy an airline ticket, you must know the forces at work. Only when you know your enemy may you slay him violently.

All major airlines feed their available seats and prices into four central reservation systems that are owned by various airlines. The systems are Apollo, Sabre, WorldSpan and Galileo (sound like the names of American Gladiators, don't they?). Airlines then change their prices based on demand. If a certain flight is selling well, the price will increase. If another flight has no takers, the fare will drop until the airline gets some. As a result, fares and inventory are changing every minute.

So why is it so hard to keep track of the prices? A bunch of reasons:

  • Internet travel sites and travel agents use the central reservation systems which are updated periodically during the day. The four are not updated at the same time, which explains why different searches may yield different results.

  • The systems also may use different algorithms to search for the lowest fares, which subsequently provide varied fares.

  • Demand explains why it is cheaper to fly on a weekday (when fewer people are traveling), at odd hours, or on days other than major holidays.

  • Airlines change their prices based on competition. If one airline flying the New York-Miami route drops its rates by 20%, chances are all airlines will drop their rates, so as not to give the discounter a competitive advantage.

  • Fare differences can exist for the same route on different airlines because of other factors. For example, if one airline has the market share for that route, it may not need to lower fares to attract passengers.

  • To complicate matters, all this happens at the speed of light. Prices for a specific flight can go up or down even as your travel agent is getting your credit card information from you, so your cheap ticket can be whisked out from under you. And your fare is never guaranteed until you have paid. That's the gamble. Fortunately, it can work both for you and against you.

  • Airlines also use inventory to their advantage and to lure the unsuspecting flyer. They divide seats on each flight into several price ranges and set aside a certain number of discounted tickets. Naturally, the lowest fares draw your attention to advertisements. Of course by the time you call (unless you are quick on the draw) those seats will be gone. Inventory brings us back to demand. If there is low availability and high demand, you will have to wait for a cheap fare. But that does not mean you should give up on a trip that is very popular. Sometimes airlines will change their fares or open up more discounted seats, depending on how sales are going.

Because of all these factors (competition, inventory and demand), it is essential to look around and comparison shop. Regardless of whether you use the Internet or a travel agent, you will come up with a wide range of prices. The challenge is to know how to make the cheap fares yours.


Here are some tips to keep in mind when searching for a ticket, regardless of whether you are using a travel agent or the Internet:

  • Start your search as early as possible (at least a month in advance). While better rates may come along, it'll give you a starting point. Also, many deals involve making your reservation at least 21 days before departure. But last minute tickets can sometimes be the cheapest, if you buy a last minute e-fare. These are listed by individual airlines on their websites, or at a travel website such as These last minute fares give you very little flexibility, but they are often very cheap. Read more about this in step 3.

  • Stay vague about your dates. Ask for the lowest fare, saying that your dates are flexible. That lets you know the best fare you could get so you can change your dates if price is the most important factor. Just to let you know, the cheapest dates to fly are usually in the winter, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's time. So if you can be really vague, try to arrange for your flight sometime during the cold season.

  • If you can adjust your times to fly, you increase your chances of getting a cheap fare. Taking the "red-eye" flight can pay off for your wallet because no one wants to depart at 2 a.m. and arrive at 6 a.m.

  • Airlines typically attach restrictions to discount fares, like a 7-, 14-, or 21-day advance purchase and/or a Saturday night stay. Ask about these restrictions, so you'll know what to expect next time so you can start your search early when discounts seat are still available.

  • Use the same airline for both directions. Since round trips are about the same as one-way tickets, it doesn't make sense not to.

  • Keep checking. It behooves airlines to have full planes, so they may add discount seats without warning. A flight you might have given up on could yield you a seat if you checked back in a day or two or even a week or month later.

  • Use your age. Ask about senior discounts or student discounts. If you're a member of Student Advantage, you can sometimes find discounts too.

  • Ask about airports other than your destination's main airport. Look into secondary airports outside the city or even in a nearby city that is less popular. People going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras who find no flights available can get lucky by flying into Baton Rouge, an hour away, or Mobile, Ala., two hours away by car.

  • Check smaller discount airlines that may not be included in the central reservation systems. These smaller airlines usually only have area-specific flights available (e.g., the Southeast), but they are much cheaper than the big airlines. So especially consider them if you're not travelling too far.

  • Join a travel club. If you fly more than twice a year, the price of joining can easily make up for itself in the long run.

  • Fly on a mid-weekday. Fridays and Mondays are the most expensive times to fly. And weekends are obviously in high demand. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to fly. Also, staying overnight on a Saturday can save you money, because then you'll get charged an excursion rate, not a business rate.

  • Try a consolidator. A consolidator is an intermediary company that buys tickets at a discount directly from the airline. You benefit from their rates. However, while the consolidator industry has gained respect in recent years, be sure to use one that is reputable. Some have gone out of business overnight, leaving customers in the lurch. One way to find consolidators is to look for the small advertisements with 800 numbers they place in the travel section of any metropolitan newspaper. Some consolidators specialize in overseas flights while others focus on the domestic market and still others do both. Some even give additional discounts to students. You also may want to ask about cancellation charges as such tickets usually carry stiff penalties for changes or cancellations.

    Here are the web sites of some ticket consolidators. They use the central reservation systems to find cheap fares but also offer some tickets at an even greater discount.


The Internet has created a whole new world for air travelers. It has given you, the customer, access to the same computer systems that travel agents use (that's why travel agents always seem so sad nowadays . . . ). As a result, you have a lot of control over your time in the air. There are sites that will check the status of your plane, check fares for you, e-mail you when fares in your price range pop up, let you comparison shop, and allow you to buy tickets from the convenience of your home at 2 a.m.

The Internet is most often used as a research tool. Not everyone who finds their best rate online actually buys online, instead turning to the airline or a travel agent. But buying online is a handy option for those who want to get it done as quickly as possible, given that if you don't buy it now, the fare could be gone by tomorrow. Below is a review of some of the most popular Internet travel sites by category.

Trip planners

These sites have several services that slice and dice your flight inquiries in any number of ways. They can search one-way trips, round trips, each leg of the trip, by price, by date, by time, and by multiple airports. And they can bake a cherry pie. They can do it all. They typically also offer services to alert you to when low fares for desired routes become available or to examine baseline fares offered by airlines throughout the year. has airplane seat maps for 13 airlines, in case you want to choose your seat too. Many trip planning sites also have hotel room finders and car rental options. has a Fare Aware option that shows what other passengers paid for a certain trip at the same time last year. For the top 1,000 routes in the United States, the service shows the average price, average number of passengers, what a one-way trip costs, the airline that flies that route the most often, and the low-fare courier rate. While some sites do international flights too, others such as Yahoo! only search within the Continental US, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

One other great thing about these Internet sites is that you can often find sweet deals at the last minute. If you want to fly on a whim for the weekend, this is really the best route to go.

Popular sites include:

At, you can do all of the above but also sign up for a weekly email with cheap fares available for the coming weekend from airports you can access. Its flight search option shows all flights leaving the day you are interested in but when you click on the price, you are bounced over to It also advertises the latest travel bargains and ongoing airline sales.

Auction sites

These fall into two categories: the typical auction and reverse auctions. At an auction site, the seller (either a company or an individual) puts an item up for sale to the highest bidder. At reverse auctions, individuals specify the price they will pay for a seat and the airlines either agree to the price or not.

Reverse auction sites include and, a Microsoft-owned travel site that has a feature enabling customers to name their price. These sites are fantastic because you can choose your own price, and you might get the ticket. So all you do is sign on, say where you want to leave from and where you want to go, what dates you plan to travel on, and how much you're willing to pay. The drawbacks are that: 1) you have to put in your credit card number before you know about the exact times of flight, so you're stuck with whatever you get, and 2) you often have to fly at crazy hours. But if you're looking for cheap and you're flexible, this is a great way to go.

Regular auction sites include, which sells available airline tickets and vacation packages. While you can't punch in your destination of choice, the sellers may have tickets to the very Caribbean island you have been dreaming about all winter.

Airline sites

Finally, one way to use the Internet to check for prices is to go to the airline sites directly. All major airlines (and the smaller ones too) have their own web presence where you can book flights. Many airlines have lower fares that you can only get when you book online or when you buy an e-ticket (a paperless ticket). So don't overlook them when searching for fares. Use any search engine, such as or, and enter the airline of your choice to get to its site. But let us warn you that the best deals usually come from auction sites, or consolidators, or special deals. Going to the airline itself should be a last resort.

While the Internet travel sites are unbeatable resources that enable you to see the range of available prices, there is no one site that can guarantee the lowest fare -- no matter what they advertise. A recent search for flights from Boston to Toronto, Canada, on the above sites turned up "lowest fares" ranging from $222 to $500 at a variety of times and airlines. And we're sure that if we surfed for a couple more hours, we could have found a lower rate. The moral of the story: the more time you spend researching, the lower the rate you'll get.

There are some drawbacks to using the Internet. One is that most sites want you to register with them, which means filling out a registration form and thinking up a password that you won't forget. If you can, use the same name and password for all the sites so that you don't forget. Another hassle is entering your pertinent information. There are zillions of boxes to be filled out, so be prepared for some busy work. Once you've registered, you'll probably get constantly bombarded with e-mails from those sites. Those are beyond annoying. A final drawback is the lack of precision in some of the searches. You may have specified you want to leave at 8 p.m. and the site will show you flights leaving at 6 a.m. This is because the 6 a.m. flight is available. But for those who want to keep all of their options open, it is a boon in the search for rock-bottom fares.


Travel agents have an edge over Internet travel sites, because they are trained to work the system. Travel agents know how to use the central reservation systems better and faster to unearth information. They may have access to all airline booking systems, although sometimes they are under contract with only one central reservation system. They also can check fares on lesser-known airlines not in the four systems. Typically, airlines outside the systems are the smaller, discount airlines. Obviously, you don't want to leave them out of your search!

Another travel agent benefit is the access to a wide range of services beyond the flight. A travel agent can provide information about vacation package deals and finalize accommodations and car rentals in one fell swoop. These packages can be amazing, because even if the flight itself isn't such a deal, you might get tremendous savings on hotel prices. Internet travel sites also provide these services, but like the airline searches, they require an affinity for entering dates and specifying choices.

Agents also have in-depth knowledge about your destination and can provide the personal touch, helping you with restaurant recommendations and reservations, for example. When selecting an agent, ask friends and family to recommend someone they trust who has come through for them in the past.

So why not ditch the Internet and go straight to a travel agent? The answer is simple: convenience. While travel agents are a good source of information, they are human and deal with numerous demanding customers such as yourself. That means you may be put on hold or your agent may not be available when you are, whereas the Internet can be accessed at any time. Speaking of the Internet, travel agents abhor the web because it takes them and their commissions out of the picture. Granted, their commissions have dwindled recently because airlines don't want to pay as much. Agents make 5% commission on airplane tickets, which is capped at $50 for a round-trip and $25 for a one-way domestic ticket.

The commission system could also affect how hard they search for the cheapest tickets. While travel agents say they actively pursue the lowest fare for each customer, how much time would you spend tracking down a $200 ticket rather than selling the $500 one? Which ticket makes your 5% commission bigger? That's why you should still do your own independent research on the Internet, even if you use a travel agent (and vice versa). If you find a lower price, throw it in his/her face. Then the agent will know that you're a vigilant consumer and might just give you what you want.


Not a drug courier, silly. In airline lingo, a courier is someone who travels without luggage to fill a seat a company has purchased in order to send goods or papers. So you simply take a seat that otherwise would be physically empty. Companies resell them at massively discounted prices because they need a warm body to accompany their stuff and make sure it gets where it needs to go. It can also be cheaper for a company to sell the seat at a major discount than to send the stuff over via airmail.

The benefits to the company are 1) the swift transportation of important items and 2) faster customs clearance than regular cargo. The benefit to you is a cheap ticket, anywhere from 50% off or more. The drawback of being a courier is the possible lack of advance notice about your flight and traveling with only a carry-on bag, especially for longer trips. But it's crazy cheap, especially for international flights. Note that most courier travel companies require you to become their member for an annual fee.

Some places to contact include:

You should now be satisfied that your relentless search has yielded the lowest fare possible. So book the trip and board the plane. Now you can be the obnoxious seatmate, boasting about your unbelievably cheap fare. Isn't irony great? Sit back, enjoy the ride, and don't forget to pass the peanuts.