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Travel Tips

How to Travel Smart on Budget Airlines

Why does it seem that there are more “Discount Airlines” and “Low-Cost Carriers” than there are actual savings? Alex Pasquariello compiles the best hacks – old and new – to pay the absolute minimum on your next flight.

See recent posts by Alex Pasquariello

Book Online

The first rule of the new breed of low-cost carriers is do everything online – and on your airline’s website. Many traditional carriers will charge for any interaction requiring a human, and you can expect those fees to be higher on discount airlines. While low-cost carriers eschew OTAs (online travel agencies like Expedia and Kayak) all together, other airlines are charging fees. For instance, in September Lufthansa Group added an Lufthansa Group added an $18 fee8 fee for all bookings made anywhere but on their website.

Be a Cookie Monster

When you click on a website, your internet browser is sent an HTTP Cookie, an itty-bitty piece of data that it stores. Every subsequent time you hit up the website, your browser sends the Cookie back to the site’s server, alerting it of your previous activity. So when you search the same flight every day or refresh the fare screen a few times, the airline knows you’re interested in that flight. This triggers so called "dynamic pricing" AKA flight prices are changed based on demand and your clicks. In the interest of low fares, fight back by clearing your Cookies (and internet history) on the daily.

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Fake It

It’s possible to score lower airfare and take advantage of fluctuating foreign currencies if you can convince the airline you’re booking the ticket from somewhere other than the U.S. So how do you fake point-of-sale? For starters, try logging on to the airline’s webpage for your destination country or the country in which the airline is based (NOT .com!). Note that while you may find a lower fare, you also may have to pay for the flight in the local currency – be sure to pay with a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees in order to maximize savings.

Do the Legwork

In the last decade we’ve grown accustom to punching a destination into any old travel booking site and letting it pump out itineraries, hotel reservations, and trip ideas. But if you’re looking for real savings, the best bet is to plan your itinerary yourself, starting with flights. An online agency may find flights out of your home airport, when it can be cheaper to fly out of a nearby hub; scour nearby airports to understand the pricing on flights to your destination. Your standard travel site also may not have access to "low-cost" fares. Everybody knows Southwest and Allegiant Airlines only sell tickets on their respective websites, and the same is true for many top European and Asian low-cost carriers.

If your international travel will require a layover in a stateside hub – LAX, SFO, ORD, DFW, EWR, or JFK, say – consider booking your flights individually rather than as one continuous ticket in order to score savings. Fly discount to your layover airport, and then book your long-haul flight with a traditional carrier. Keep in mind this strategy requires scheduling adequate time to make connections and is best done with only a carry-on, a feat not every traveler can pull off. Just know that a little legwork and extra hustle on your part can save big bucks.

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Know Thy Fees

It’s absolutely critical to know all the fees tacked on to your basic airfare when traveling on any airline, and even more so when flying "discount airlines," which have developed some dubious tricks to maximize revenue on every seat. Indeed, it’s much more complicated than a simple "bag fee." For instance, Frontier Airlines charges $35 for a CARRY-ON when you pay at their website and bumps it up to $60 if you pay at the gate. The airline also charges $30 for your first checked bag when you pay online at time of ticket purchase but $40 if you pay at the airport.

Spirit pulls the same hijinks. Join their "Fare Club" and pay online and you’ll spend $25 to $30 for a carry-on bag, otherwise it can cost $45. The same applies to your first checked bag which can cost $30 for members and $50 for nonmembers paying at the airport.

British low-cost carrier EasyJet can get you to cities in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Africa, but they’ll gouge you with fees. EasyJet allows one piece of hand luggage and one standard duty-free shopping bag purchased at the airport – everything else you’re paying for. That means $30 bucks for one checked bag paid online and up to $60 for checked luggage paid at airport. UK’s RyanAir will even charge you a fee if you check in at the airport – up to $65, so be sure to stay online and plan ahead.

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Fly Light

If doing all that math for luggage fees has your head spinning, you need to pack for your trip with carry-on luggage only. While it may sound impossible, flying with minimal baggage can liberate your travels and unlock authentic experiences at your destination, like shopping for toiletries, doing laundry at corner laundromats, and eating at unpretentious cafes. After all, if you can enjoy a destination without taking along four pairs of shoes, then you may not be ready to fly on a modern low-cost carrier.

Follow the Data

We live in an age of up-to-date information, but you don’t have to be a genius to develop a travel strategy based around the latest data. Just be flexible with where – and when – you want to travel and grab low fares when you find them. For instance, Kayak’s 2016 Hacker Guide analyzed flight prices, new routes, plane loads, and destination demand to unlock the cities with the greatest drop in airfare in 2016. Choice destinations experiencing price drops vs. last year include Hong Kong (down 2 percent), Tel Aviv (down 19 percent), Beijing (down 18 percent), Bangkok (down 18 percent) and Athens (down 17 percent). With that info in hand, check out the local low-cost carriers flying in and out of those city to maximize savings.

Timing is Everything

Though not an exact science, there are some general rules for saving money by purchasing airfare and flying at the right time. FareCompare has run the numbers and found that the best time to buy a ticket is Tuesday at 3 p.m. EST, the time when most airlines release sales. The site also found that, unsurprisingly, the cheapest days to fly are generally midweek (Tuesday, Wednesday) and Saturday. Another thing to know? Apparently there are "magic dates" to fly to specific destinations. For instance, in the U.S., March 16 is the last day to depart and pay cheaper winter prices before spring fares kick in, May 16 is the last day to take advantage of spring fares, and after June 9 you’ll be paying peak fares. The dates are a bit different for Europe: Fares jump for the summer season after May 16, so wait to depart and pay after August 23 for fall pricing.

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