Traveling isn’t just about the destination. Carry On is our series devoted to how we get away in the digital age, from the choices we make to the experiences we share.
Searching for online fares for flights can feel like a game with constantly changing rules. Don’t buy tickets on the weekend. Buy them on Tuesdays at this specific time. Wait until three days before you need to fly for a sudden price drop. Never search for the same flight more than three times. Log out of every browser and social network before even looking up flights.
Most of the questionable logic behind these pieces of advice don’t hold up. And even one that seems like a clear winner in the age of ubiquitous internet surveillance is less helpful than it seems: When tracking down cheap flights online, it’s best to turn off all tracking.
Go private, and quickly
Chris Rodgers, CEO of search-engine optimization agency Colorado SEO Pros, suggests using private browsing, but it might not actually do much more than give you peace of mind. On the Chrome browser that means opening an “incognito” window. Your smartphone browser, like Safari on iOS, has private browsing, as well.
“It is a good idea to use private browsing … when searching for flights to prevent as much tracking as possible,” Rodgers said in a recent email conversation. “This could help prevent specific rate hikes that could be tied to an individual user’s new and return sessions.” He advises on quick decision-making instead of repeatedly returning to check on pricing over a long stretch of time with more opportunity for tracking.
But Rodgers admitted that pricing is more likely set by factors beyond your personal browsing history and settings, so this doesn’t work every time.
He suggests researching flights as usual and then leaving the website and returning on a different device while in private browsing mode to actually buy the tickets. “However if your fare is in high demand it may go up regardless,” he warned.
Kayak, the flight and hotel aggregator, bursts any illusions that switching out devices or going incognito can help you save a few bucks. In fact, Kayak’s North America regional director Steve Sintra, says logging into airline accounts or services like Kayak, Priceline, and Hipmunk might actually help you game the system. He said while signed onto your personal account you are more likely to see better fares and deals. But mostly it comes down to timing and availability.
Sintra said in a recent phone call, “When you find a good fare, book it, don’t wait.”
If price is your only concern, aggregators can piece together an itinerary for you that may have the worst layovers and mixed-and-matched airlines, but — hey — it’ll be cheaper. The more flexible you are on timing and other factors the more likely you’ll find deals.
You might save a few bucks by waiting, but it’s not usually worth it, Sintra said, with the extra stress, chance of losing a seat, and typically paying way more.
“The longer you wait the greater the likelihood the prices will go up,” Sintra said.
Based on historical data and flight pricing trends, Kayak has found that you’ll find the best prices four months in advance for holiday travel. The two weeks before a flight doesn’t suddenly mean a price drop, he added. Instead prices hold steady at what’s usually the highest-cost flights. Prices fluctuate, so it can seem smart to wait and then suddenly you’re kicking yourself if you miss a low-price window.
Shop the sales
Myths about buying airline tickets on Tuesdays mostly stem from sale schedules. While most major airlines open up sales on Tuesdays, airline sales happen all the time. So yeah, you’ll be able to book a flight with a potential discount on a Tuesday, but those prices will be available for however long the sale is running.
You can join airline email lists to get notified about flight sales directly in your inbox.
Plan your trip around cheaper travel days. If you travel on the actual holiday (Thanksgiving or Christmas Day instead of Dec. 22, for example) prices are typically lower. Same with travel after a holiday. If you can fly on a random Monday or Tuesday you’ll see cheaper fares compared to a Friday or Sunday evening flight.
On Southwest’s website, the low-fare calendar shows the lowest prices each day of the month. You can see the patterns for a November trip from San Francisco to Phoenix. Note the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday and how the pricing is higher around then.
Tricks and hacks aside, if you see a good flight that works for you, snatch it.