5 insider secrets to booking cheap airfare

Gas prices and other oil product prices are extremely volatile right now — possibly putting a damper on summer travel plans as consumers struggle to budget for flight costs that feel like an ever-moving target.

In spite of high flight prices, experts say cost may not be enough to deter travelers.

“Normally I would say summer 2022 will be the summer of the staycation, but the summer of 2021 and summer of 2020 were the summer of the staycation,” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel website JoeSentMe.com. “So if people are desperate to travel, and many are, the fares won’t matter much.”

[READ: How to Get Out of a Timeshare.]

In the last month, gas prices rose at record-fast rates and oil prices dropped below $100 a barrel before jumping back up in response to the Russian war in Ukraine. Airlines may raise airfare prices in response to higher fuel costs, but individuals can still find cheap flights if they’re willing to be flexible and strategic.

[Read: Best Cheap Summer Vacations.]

Why Do Flight Prices Fluctuate?

Flight prices are determined by a complex algorithm that includes factors such as oil prices, the global economic outlook, internal projections, competitor rates and historical data, according to Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of “Take More Vacations.”

“Airfare is one of the most uniquely volatile things we purchase,” Keyes says. While it can be frustrating for a consumer, he says, “this volatility is an opportunity. Today’s expensive flight might be tomorrow’s cheap flight.”

Try these strategies to get cheap flights this year:

— Timing matters: not too early, not too late.

— Set alerts and do your research.

— Be flexible in price, destination and timing.

— Be prepared for pandemic disruptions.

— Consider seasonality before booking.

Timing Matters: Not Too Early, Not Too Late

Old guidelines on the cheapest day to book flights, or even specific recommendations such as booking airfare Tuesdays at 1 p.m. or exactly 50 days from the flight date are outdated. “Airfare is unpredictable,” Keyes says. “The best way to time it is to think in terms of ‘Goldilocks’ windows: not too early, not too late, in the middle, just right.”

The general rule is that for domestic flights, travelers should start searching for flight tickets one to three months in advance. For international flights, the best prices are typically available from two to eight months in advance. But with gas prices this volatile, waiting to buy can have its benefits, too.

“A lot of people like to plan a year in advance. But guess what: In mid-April if you’re planning for Memorial Day, that’s OK,” Brancatelli says. “If you delay your planning for Memorial weekend until April, you may pay more but you may pay less. If fuel continues to go down, you win.”

Prices can also vary widely among airlines.

“With Southwest and Spirit, you’re still going to get the cheapest fare further out,” says Edward Russell, airlines reporter at Skift. “If you’re looking to fly American or United, they’re holding inventory, so it’s a roll of the dice.”

Set Alerts and Do Your Research

To purchase at the lowest ticket price, Keyes suggests exercising patience and researching flight prices daily to get the best deal.

“Your best strategy is just to be patient and wait for those $1,000 flights to drop down to $400. More often than not, they will, so long as you’re looking far enough in advance, and you need to get alerted when those cheap flights happen — lots of people use flight trackers or search online every day,” Keyes says.

Travelers can use alert services like those offered by Google Flights or Skyscanner to keep tabs on prices for a certain route.

[Read: Best Apps for Finding Cheap Flights.]

Be Flexible in Price, Destination and Timing

Travel experts say flexibility is king in 2022, as it has been every year since the pandemic began.

“Preserve your flexibility. It’s impractical not to book the nonrefundable fares from airlines because the gap between them and fully refundable fares is too large,” Brancatelli says. “But don’t prepay hotels, car rentals or most other travel components. The difference in price isn’t that great. Flexibility in these odd times has great value.”

You may also have to be flexible with your destination. Choosing a bucket-list travel destination like Myrtle Beach can be costly. Instead, consider lesser-known travel spots and cities, like New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Because business travel hasn’t bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, you may find great deals on hotels, restaurants and flights to cities missing their usual business travelers.

Travelers can also try researching different days and times to travel. In addition, even after tickets are purchased, airlines may change routes or timing as they adjust flight availability to match demand.

Be Prepared for Pandemic Disruptions

COVID-19 case counts can change suddenly as outbreaks pop up in specific areas of the country or globe. Particularly for those considering international travel this year, pandemic-related disruptions may occur, depending on your destination.

It’s possible that mask mandates on planes and public transportation might be lifted this year only to be reinstated if another outbreak occurs. Stay flexible and be prepared to wear a mask on your flight. Rules around vaccination and masking may vary across airlines, destinations and countries.

[Read: Budget-Friendly Staycation Ideas.]

Consider Seasonality Before Booking

Travelers can get good flight deals during the offseason or during the shoulder months between the offseason and peak season.

Those planning a trip during a peak period, such as midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s should start looking for domestic flights two to five months in advance — while keeping in mind the unpredictability of fuel prices and their affect on flight prices this year.

“My advice is to consider booking summer or fall trips soon,” Keyes says. “Don’t book a bad fare just to do it soon, of course. There’s almost never an excuse to overpay, but one reason people do it is they don’t believe cheap flights can actually pop up.”

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5 Insider Secrets to Booking Cheap Airfare

originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/22/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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