Need to find cheap airline tickets for your next family trip? Here are the tried and true tricks we use to fly my family of four several times per year. You don't need to work for an airline or be an expert travel hacker to save hundreds of dollars on flights.
Air travel is expensive when you have to buy a tickets for a family. It's often just cheaper to drive, but if you're going very far from home, driving doesn't always make sense.
Finding cheap airline tickets made it possible for my family to visit Paris and London for the first time. Once we got there, those cities weren't any more expensive than big cities in the U.S. We used several of the strategies on this list to make that trip happen, and now we dream a little bigger when we plan our summer vacations.
Here are my top strategies for finding cheap airline tickets.
Start Far in Advance
When you need airline tickets for a family, I've found that it pays to start your search 6-12 months in advance.
This is especially true when you want to visit Grandma for Thanksgiving, when you've booked a Spring Break cruise or any other popular travel season. When you start 6-12 months in advance, you have time to watch prices and then jump on early bird pricing and sales when they happen.
Can you find last-minute airfare deals? Maybe, but it's risky – especially if you need more than one ticket and need to sit by your kids. Save this strategy for when it's OK if the flight falls through. Anytime you have to be on that plane, start your search early to get the best airfare deals.
Can't wait weeks or months to book your flight? Skip ahead to Tip #4 – Flexible Dates.
Watch Airfare Trends
How will you know a good price when you see it? Spend a few weeks checking airfares to the city you want to visit.
Get a feel for what a typical flight costs so that you can jump on a good deal when you see it. When I have a destination in mind, I try to do a quick airfare check each day for a week or two to see what pricing trends I can recognize.
Set Up Alerts
Set up deal alerts from your preferred airlines and search tools. You can usually get emails or texts on a daily or weekly basis. Here are two ways I have used these.
Watch trends – You don't have to go and check fares for your destination every day to watch the trends. Kayak, Momondo or Google Flights will send you daily or weekly updates on fares. It's easy to unsubscribe when you don't need it anymore.
Sale updates – Sign up for emails from your favorite airlines to find out about sales and other promotions that can help you save money.
Once you see a good price on a flight you want, don't wait to buy! Seats may fill quickly when the price goes down. This deal may last only a few hours – maybe less.
Fares vary greatly from one day to another. Unless you absolutely must fly in and out on specific dates, be sure to search alternate dates. One day earlier or later could make a big difference in price.
Most airlines and search engines will show a fare calendar that makes it easy to see the least expensive dates.
There's no rule that you have to fly the same airline both ways. Booking a round-trip flight is often a good option, but searching one-way flights on multiple airlines is the surest way to find cheap airline tickets.
For a spring break cruise from Florida, we saved hundreds of dollars by flying Delta to Miami and then Southwest from Fort Lauderdale to get home.
Big cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Miami and others have more than one major airport within a short drive of the city. Look at one-way flights for different airports, on multiple airlines, with flexible dates to find the best fares.
Be sure to consider the cost of ground transportation when you look at alternate airports.
My family found the best prices on our last trip to Disneyland when we flew into Long Beach and then home from LAX. The Uber ride to LAX is double the price, but the airfare savings were big enough to make it worthwhile.
It may be worth driving farther to a bigger airport. Salt Lake International is our home airport, and it's a long drive to any other major airport. However, for the right fare to the right place, searching fares from another airport was still worth it.
Denver is an 8-hour drive from our home, but when I found $500 fares to Paris from Denver, we were willing to add two days of drive time for a dream trip. Fares from Salt Lake City were double the price, so we saved at least a thousand dollars even after the cost of fuel, food, parking and hotel.
Related: How We Found Cheap Flights to Paris
Check Southwest Separately
Southwest, JetBlue and other budget and international airlines often do not appear in Kayak, Momondo and Google searches.
I like flying Southwest, and it's often the best deal from my home airport. When I'm shopping for flights, I check southwest.com and other airlines' websites in addition to the search engines.
No matter where I find the price, I always book directly through the airline's website. That's often the lowest cost, and if anything goes wrong at check-in, you'll get more help if you bought your tickets from the airline.
Watch for Hidden Fees
Some discount airlines will hook you with rock-bottom fares, but then hit you with fees for checked bags, carry-on bags, seat assignments, refunds and ticket changes, printed tickets… even soda and peanuts.
As long as you know what you're signing up for, you can pay for only what you need and fly for less. My family of four once flew from Salt Lake City to Orlando for for about $75 each on Frontier. We booked during a killer sale, checked one large bag for the four of us and declined all the other conveniences.
We had a good experience with Frontier, but it's not my first choice because planning for that flight was a hassle. And Frontier's regular fares are not always that good. Be sure you know what's included and what isn't before you commit to a budget fare.
Follow the Fares
Traditional travel logic says that you pick a destination then search for flights to that destination. You can save a lot of money if you pick your destination after you search for flights. Momondo.com, Kayak.com and Google Flights will all show you fares on a map.
This is how my husband and I found ourselves in Nova Scotia for our 15th anniversary. We looked at the map to see what destinations fit our budget and picked the one we liked best. Then we adjusted our dates to match the lowest fares. This was one of our very favorite trips.
People who fly frequently for their jobs can rack up a lot of air miles quickly. It's a no-brainer to turn those miles into a family vacation.
What about the rest of us?
We found that flying once or twice a year never earned us enough points to get free airline tickets. We finally applied for a credit card with air miles rewards and made it our primary card. We now earn enough miles to cover several plane tickets a year. They're usually short flights, and it's not always enough for four round-trip tickets. However, getting even one free ticket saves us money.
Choose a rewards card for an airline that has lots of flights from your home airport. We went with the Delta Gold Skymiles American Express. I also have a Chase Southwest rewards card for my business. We pay our balances in full every month and never pay interest. So, American Express and Chase pay us to travel. 🙂
You can dream bigger if you have a bag of tricks to help you make air travel more affordable for your family. Whether you dream of visiting Grandma more often or taking the family on an international adventure, I hope that these tips for finding cheap airline tickets help your family get there sooner.