I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile, ever since Go Girl got started last year. But the topic came to mind again a few weeks ago, when my mother asked me to help her find a cheap flight for my little sister. As I talked my mother through the process of purchasing a flight, I remembered how overwhelming the search for cheap airfare can feel.

So, how can we simplify this process? Well, let’s review the basics that you’ve already heard. A simple Google search will reveal plenty of advice columns that tell you to search at least one month in advance and to broaden your search in order to find the cheapest options. In general, that’s good advice. But sometimes that advice will backfire. Here are a few tips that will help you find the cheapest airfare without pulling out your hair:

  1. Window shop early. Sometimes you have to get closer to the time of travel for the deals to really start flowing, so I always look three or four months in advance, just to see how expensive the flight I’m looking for currently is. Don’t try to buy at that stage, unless you find a shockingly good deal. If you know the general price range, you’ll also know a real deal when you see it.
  2. Book early if you want to fly Southwest. Southwest seldom lowers prices as you near your departure date, but the prices frequently increase as their better deals disappear. And even if they do lower the price, Southwest will allow you to change your flight and keep the difference as an online credit for up to 12 months. They won’t even charge you a fee!  So if you think you’ll use Southwest in the future anyway, it’s worth taking a chance on a price that seems good.
  3. Use efficient search engines. Rather than entering your flight search into 15 different search engines each time you search, find a website that will compare rates for you. Sidestep will compare flights in one main search and provide a link to the original search engine. Travel Zoo will run your numbers through all the major search engines (such as Orbitz, Jetblue, and Expedia) and open a new window for each search engine. It takes up screen space, but it saves time.
  4. Don’t book 3-4 weeks in advance. I have found, time and time again, that flight prices go through the roof during that week-long period. Why? Because all the advice columns list that week as the deadline for booking airfare. If you just wait another week or two, most airlines will relent and offer better deals on the remaining flights. You may still pay more than if you’d booked six weeks in advance, but not as much as if you book three or four weeks in advance. Seriously – just wait a few days, and the prices will drop.
  5. Consider booking two one-way flights instead of one roundtrip flight. That plan may sound complicated, but it opens up more doorways to saving.
  6. And of course, never give your credit card info to an unreliable source. This should go without saying, but please – make sure the website is legit before you book airfare.
  7. Learn from your mistakes. If you learn after the fact that you paid $200 more on your flight to Paris than you would have if you’d waited just one day, don’t get upset about it. Just take a few deep breaths and make sure not to book the first flight within your budget next time.