8 Tips for Finding the Best Airfare

Most people have some degree of anxiety when booking airline tickets. There often seems to be no logic to fares, and once you're onboard you wonder if the person next to you got a better deal than you did. If you're willing to invest a little time, however, you can find a great airfare and feel confident that, even if you didn't get the cheapest ticket of everyone on your flight, you did pretty well. Here are 8 tips to help you find the best airfare.

1. Budget for Airfare

Having a baseline fare is a good starting point. Not only can you work this expense into your budget as a line item and save for it, you feel like you have your bearings when it's time to research fares. Budget $1,000+ for international fares, and around $400 for domestic fares. If your fare ends up being higher, you can adjust other trip expenses accordingly, like cutting what you spend on souvenirs and gifts.

2. Make Some Coffee and Get Comfortable

Try to set aside at least one hour to research fares and narrow down your options. Have a notebook and pen handy so you can make notes on which site you found which fare on. Keep your search organized, and be prepared to book once you find a fare that falls within your schedule and budget sweet spot.

3. Use Aggregators

Choose a "home base" aggregator like kayak.com as your frame of reference. Kayak will do some comparison shopping for you, among sites like Travelocity, Orbitz, and Priceline. Once you have your best fare from your home base aggregator, you can start your own comparison shopping. No aggregator gives you all the information, so be prepared to use more than one.

The Google-powered ITA Matrix lets you search for one-way, round trip, or multi-city flights and specify parameters like airline and routing. It's also great for searching with flexible terms, if, for example, you want to search for an entire month of fares. You don't book directly through the ITA Matrix; rather, you book directly with airlines once you've found a fare.

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4. Consider Signing Up for Airfare Alerts

Some airfare sites and individual airlines offer airfare alerts that will notify you of fare drops on routes of interest. If you sign up for airfare alerts, get them for a specific destination, because you can end up getting more of them than you're willing to sift through.

5. Check All Surcharges When Comparing Costs

Understand that many promo and discount tickets come with several hidden charges. You could end up paying more than people who just bought regular tickets. These charges may include taxes, carry-on luggage charges, processing fees, "usage" fees, and even debit card fees.

6. Book 6 to 8 Weeks in Advance

Unless you want to travel at the height of a peak travel season or over a holiday, you don't have to book months in advance.About one month from departure, prices tend to either drop or shoot up significantly, so you take some risk booking 6 to 8 weeks out, but you can also avoid paying more should fares go up 4 weeks from departure. There's no specific best day of the week to book, but booking Tuesday through Thursday tends to help you avoid the weekend rush and find more deals.

If you're going to Europe, you'll generally get the best fares 8 to 10 weeks in advance, so plan accordingly for researching international flights. Generally, the months of February, March, and November are the cheapest months to fly to Europe.

7. Consider Gambling on a Last-Minute Fare

If you're flying a family of four, you probably can't do this, but if you're super flexible about dates, you can sometimes grab a last-minute deal a few days before departure. Airlines sometimes offer deep discounts on un-booked seats at the last minute to fill their planes. Some airlines put out weekly newsletters offering last-minute deals.

8. Once You've Found a Great Fare, Visit the Airline Website

When you find an airline with the best fares for your needs, go directly to that airline's website and compare costs. Quite often you'll be offered the same fare you got through an aggregator, and occasionally it may even be lower. The benefits of booking directly through the airline include easier changes and cancellations, avoidance of third-party booking fees, and the possibility of compensation (on some airlines) should fares drop further.

Budgeting for airline tickets is easier when you use an app like Mint that allows you to easily create and customize a budget with line items based on your life. Plus, you can take Mint with you using the free Mint smartphone app.

Next Step: Sign up for Mint and make budgeting for travel simpler.