I see many posts about, “how can I find the cheapest flight in America?” It’s a fare question (*pun intended), however in the USA, that question also becomes complicated.
If you just want to search for cheap flights in America, use this fare search comparison, which also includes budget airlines like Frontier, South West and JetBlue.
Like China and Australia, flying in America makes sense. It’s big and especially if you’re travelling between the east and west coast, few people have the time to drive, catch a train or (gasp), a bus the entire way.
However America also has a funny way of working out flight itineraries. Want to fly from Minneapolis to Memphis? Sure, we’ll just take you via Phoenix and Dallas first, because why would you want to fly straight there? Don’t you want to rack up those frequent flyer miles?
Even once on a so-called direct flight, from Los Angeles (LAX) to Chicago (CHI), the flight landed elsewhere to pick up more passengers first (we remained on the plane) but if you’re a nervous flyer or travelling with kids, those extra take-off’s and landings can make air travel horrendous.Viator.com – Tours, sightseeing tours, activities & things to do in any US city!
On a side note. You’ll notice I include airport and airline codes in my posts. As travel agents we were taught never to use jargon for clients, however as more travellers are booking their own trips online, it’s useful knowledge to have, and it’s quicker when searching for flights as most search engines allow you to use airport codes.
Anyway, understand hub cites may be an archaic system but to find cheap flights in America, it helps to have an idea of the airline routes, their hub cities and secondary hubs.
I go into more detail about hub cities in my post book the cheapest flight to anywhere. In that post you’ll also find general information about factors influencing the price of flight tickets. It’s recommended to read that post first, if you haven’t already, as this post is more an add-on to that one.
>> For the purpose of this article, you can find a list of Airlines of the USA and their hub cities here.
How can you use hub city information to get the cheapest flights?
Easy, just make sure it’s the second full moon, under Jupiter’s reign, throw a bag of sugar over your head, and chew on a tabasco leaf whilst you’re booking your flight.
In all seriousness though, knowing which American airline’s service the areas you plan on travelling to, or (will stop at along the way) is going to mean you end up on a more direct connection and in theory a cheaper fare. Below are some examples of cheaper flights in America.Search, compare and book any US airline now.
So as an example:
Minneapolis (MSP) to Memphis (MEM – travelling on Southwest Airlines (WN).
Southwest Airlines main hub is Dallas-Lovefield (DAL) so you can be guaranteed there will be a flight via Dallas, but their secondary hubs include Chicago Midway (MDW) and Denver (DEN).
Out of these which is the most direct route?
It turns out Minneapolis (MSP) to Chicago-Midway (MDW) to Memphis (MEM) is the most direct route and surprise surprise, that route is also the cheapest.
However using this same principle, with Spirit Airlines (NK). Even though Spirit Airlines main hub city is Fort Lauderdale(FLL) Atlanta is a secondary hub city. So, the fare from Minneapolis (MSP) to Atlanta (ATL) gives us a direct option which surprise surprise, is also the cheapest. The indirect flight with Spirit Airlines goes via Detroit (DTT) another secondary hub city.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
For another example:
let’s go American Airlines (AA) from Orlando (MCO) to Portland (PDX). American Airlines main hub city is Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and secondary hub cities include Chicago-Midway (ORD), Phoenix (PHX), and Los Angeles (LAX).
Which of these hub cities would be the most direct?
In this case Phoenix (PHX) is the cheapest option. In the instance where two routes seem similar distance, smaller airports are more likely to have cheaper landing fees, (passed on as airport taxes) so it could explain why Phoenix is the cheaper option. FYI, the $589 American Airlines fare goes via Dallas-Fortworth and the $713 fare goes via Chicago Midway.
As a last example:
Alaska Airlines (AS) from Los Angeles (LAX) to Chicago (CHI).Alaska Airlines main hub city is Anchorage (ANC) and their secondary hubs include (but not limited to) Los Angeles (LAX), Seattle (SEA) and San Francisco (SFO). As LAX is a secondary hub, there is a direct flight from LAX to ORD (Chicago Midway Airport) which is the cheapest option at $171. The flight via SFO is more expensive at $230 and the flight via Seattle which is further away, is more expensive still. Important to note that Alaska airlines charges $30 for the first piece of checked in baggage, and $40 for the second piece of checked in baggage.
All the above examples are somewhat logical and make sense.
However, if you look at Southwest Airlines:
from Los Angeles (LAX) to Chicago (ORD). Both of those cities are secondary hubs, which means, there is a direct flight between them. However in this case the direct flight is not the cheapest.
But Jade why are you so confusing?
According to the schedule below, the direct flight L.A to Chicago only operates on certain days (i.e. Saturday). Therefore, there’s limited seats available.
Less seats available=more expensive seats.
Meanwhile the indirect flights operate daily, meaning lots of seats available.
More seats available=cheaper seats (generally).
Also, in the case of budget airlines, the longer they keep you in the air, the more alcoholic drinks you’re likely to buy, so they’ll end up making more money from you in the end.
Seats on a plane
A plane has a finite number of seats. Once they’re gone, that’s it, there’s no more, unless someone cancels. Generally, the cheapest seats are purchased first, then the next cheapest and so on.
Therefore generally, booking in advance will secure you the cheapest seat. However like all retail industries, if there’s seats available, that are not sold, an airline may have a sale to increase bums on seats, thus reducing the potential for operating a flight at a loss.
There’s a common misconception that booking on mobile sites is more expensive than desktop. However what is most often overlooked is the fact that there is limited seats on a plane. If there is only one cheap seat left, and you try and book that on two seperate websites, one website will fail and therefore show you the next cheapest available seat, which could be $50 more or it could be hundreds more.
I talk about hacker fares in my previous post and podcast but if you haven’t read those, booking a round trip used to be cheaper to stick with the one airline. However with internet sector fares and budget airlines it’s become easier and in some cases cheaper to book two cheap one way flights in America, than booking a return flight with the same airline.
A hacker fare is simply booking two or more cheap airlines to either get to your destination, or to make a round-trip. The easiest comparison is to:
look up a return flight from A to B
then compare the cost of a one way flight from A to B
then another one way flight from B to A.
Hacker fares can work well if you’re travelling in peak periods. Try searching from your city in America to another city as a return journey, then re-do the same search as two one way flights and see if that changes the price.
If you’re travelling from a smaller airport, another example of a hacker fare is to look up a flight from your city, to a hub of a cheaper airline, and then fly to your destination with that cheaper airline. A smaller airport with fewer airlines servicing it, can be more expensive to fly into and out of.
In other words, it might be cheaper to get to a bigger airport, (which has multiple airlines servicing it) rather than fly from a small town airport which only has one or two airlines servicing it. Whether you fly to the bigger airport, or drive or bus it will obviously come down to how much time you have vs how much money you’ll actually save.
It’s not America but a good example of this is in Australia. Flying from Sydney to Darwin (Domestic), is often more expensive than flying from Sydney to Bali (international) which is further. Why? Because more airlines service Bali than Darwin, so competition is greater.
More airlines flying to a destination = cheaper faresCompetition can be a good thing when it comes to cheaper airfares.
However if flying two different airlines, on two seperate tickets, be aware, if one airline is delayed, and you miss your connecting flight, there’s little you can do, so always allow plenty of time between flights if doing this.
Each aircraft type will have a different operating cost based on size, weight, fuel efficiency, number of crew required etc. Generally bigger planes, have more seats, which means there’s a higher chance of a cheaper seat because the operating cost is spread across more seats. Usually if you click on ‘flight details’ when searching fares, an airline will divulge the aircraft type. This can change due to operations and maintenance, but is another minor factor to consider.
Airline sales are often cyclical and if one airline offers cheap seats to a particular destination, often others will follow suit, though not always the same price because each airline has different offers (seats, bags, meals etc). Creating a dedicated email address or filter, and signing up for multiple airline sales alerts that service a destination you wish to travel to, will give you a better idea of what is a bargain sale price, vs an average sale price.
These days, flying the same airline in both directions on a round trip, doesn’t always mean the cheapest flight, which is why comparing one way flights VS round trip flights is worth a look. However booking multiple airlines can also bring aditional complications such as different baggage policies. If you choose to book two single tickets to get to a destination, (as mentioned in my other post) this can lead to other complications like missed connections if one flight is delayed, which can ultimately cost you more in the long run.
The single biggest factor that affects the price of flights is the date. Popular days book out first and are therefore more expensive because the cheap seats go first. Less popular days are cheaper because people don’t want to travel on those days. There’s periods of peak demand like holidays, summer, and events, but you also have to consider local events that may affect demand. The more flexible, you are, the higher the chance of finding a cheaper seat.
Time of Day
Traditionally, popular times like 9am flights or 5:30pm departing flights would book out with business traveller’s wanting to get to meetings or return home. There’s still some influence of this, which is why you’ll often see cheaper flights early in the morning like 6am or late at night, after 9pm or 10pm.
A cheap seat is not always a cheap set
Zero baggage allowance, overnight layover or transits, credit card or booking fees, limited airport transfer options (no point paying for a $50 airfare if you have to pay $100 taxi fee), on-board fees for drinks, food or entertainment, excruciatingly long check-in queues requiring early arrival at the airport; these are all factors which can dramatically turn a cheap seat into an expensive one, in which case on occasion, paying an extra $20-$30 upfront with an alternative ‘premium’ airline, could save you more in the long run.
Airline pricing is a complicated matter and there’s multiple factors at play. Most of which are decided by people in an office, a year of more in advance.
Obvious things like public holidays, sporting matches, music festivals will all affect how valuable an airline seat is on any given route.Search, compare and book the cheapest USA flights now.
So understanding which airlines will best service the route you wish to fly, signing up to their sales alerts and frequent flyer program will ensure you’re up to date with the latest airline deals.
Budget airlines in America tend to have sales every week, but truly amazing deals only come out a few times a year. If you’re flying round trip, use a comparison site to ensure you’re getting the best deal.
Change the filters to your desired departure time, stops and baggage requirements. Always, double check baggage policies and credit card surcharges before committing to a flight as it can greatly affect your overall price.
There’s no single, quick fix solution, and to explain every fare type and airline policy would require an actual book (which is produced by IATA and is the size of three large telephone books) but by:
> being aware of routings
> comparing other nearby airports
> comparing different airlines
> knowing how much a fare usually is, so you recognise a good sale
> booking in advance
Will help ease your mind that you managed to get a cheap flight.
Have other suggestions? Share your comments below:
The Southwest Airlines Way Jody Hoffer Gittell
Anyone who’s flown South West Airlines will know, it’s an experience unlike any other airline. This book details how they’re management strategy ensures the airline remains profitable, regardless of what setbacks the industry faces. More than anything it details how anyone can use their experience to change management styles in your company to be more like the South West Airlines Way.
Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase Betty N Thesky
From the flight attendant turned podcaster, read hilarious stories from the air and her travels, from America’s favourite air steward.
Flying Across America Daniel L Rust
The history of commercial aviation across America tracing the first continental flight, through to post 9/11 air travel.
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