Finding the best flights

Airport time Searching for deals on airfares can take up a lot of time if you let it. But if you don’t shop around, you could end up spending hundreds of dollars more than you need to. So when is the best time to book flights and how do you know you’re getting a deal? Here are a few pointers on getting awesome fares, plus a list of the best websites to help you do the job.

1) Book early… or late

To get the best prices on domestic flights, the experts recommend booking at least two months ahead, especially in the high season or around holidays. During the low season, booking early can get you incredible prices, but waiting until the last minute is also a way to find something good. If you don’t have a particular destination in mind, you can wait until a few days before you plan on going away and scoop up the last-minute discounts that many airlines offer in an attempt to fill up the planes.

For international flights, it’s recommended that you book as early as possible. Generally four to six months should suffice, but I’ve found that checking prices the day the seats open up — usually around 300 days before the flight date — can give you amazing deals that never appear again. NEVER book the first flight you see. Even if it seems like it might be a good deal, it’s worth taking a few days to check if the prices fluctuate. Fares often go down on Tuesdays, and sometimes also on Fridays. That said, if you’ve already been looking into fares and the price seems dramatically lower, don’t wait. Even a few hours is enough time for a great deal to disappear.

2) Figure out what you want to pay

Chris Myden of YULdeals and YYZdeals (he also looks for deals from other cities in Canada) advised me that the best way to figure out what you want to pay is to do a three-day flexible search from midweek to midweek on Kayak, and then do the same for a date about eight weeks from now. This will give you a general idea of how much tickets are going for so you can keep your eye out for a reasonable price on the dates you want to travel. Also, it’s much cheaper to fly early or mid-week than on the weekend, so if you can be flexible, it’s generally worth it.

3) Sign up for “Price Alerts”

A few of the big travel search engines have alerts that are sent to you via email when the price of your ticket drops. My favourite is Kayak’s “Price Alerts” which you can set to notify you daily or weekly. You can also set the maximum price you want to pay, and you’ll get an email when a ticket drops below that price. Airfarewatchdog offers a similar service.

I also like to sign up for newsletters from the individual airlines. Often when they’re having sales, you can get discount codes that beat anything you might find on one of the big aggregators.

4) Check various websites

There are a lot of different websites with different fares out there. While Expedia and Orbitz might be the most popular, they won’t always get you the best prices. Often, in fact, the cheapest fares to be had are on the airline websites.

Two lesser known fare-finding websites are hipmunk.com and matrix.itasoftware.com. Hipmunk lists the various fares in a nifty visual graph and lets you select the outbound and return legs and then sends you to another website for the booking. It also orders the flights in various ways — the default being “agony” which takes into account price, duration, departure and arrival times.  Matrix Airfare Search, which is powered by Google, is a very powerful search tool that seems to find the consistently lowest prices around. You can’t book through them, but regardless, you can take the information from the search to a travel agent who can.

Another search engine to try is Skyscanner.com. Similar to Kayak, it’s an aggregator and searches other flight searching websites for the best deals.

Just remember, when travelling with kids, the cheapest flights aren’t always the best. Make sure to think about connections and stopovers. If saving a few hundred dollars is worth the hassle of rushing through airports with little people, then book the cheapest flight. Often, direct flights, or those with fewer layovers can make life much easier. Also, it’s worth checking out the airline’s website before booking the tickets. Some airports and airlines are much more kid-friendly than others!

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