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How to Find Cheap Airfares Yourself

Updated on August 9, 2010

My Story

For those of you who don't know me--i'm Direxmd. I write articles here on Hubpages often, and travel is one specialty area of mine. I simply love to live out of my suitcase, and enjoy finding cheap airfares. the flight can be long, short or whatever--I love air travel! I like to analyse certain industries and their business practices, advertising, prices and so on. Today i'll be talking about the airline industry, how you yourself can find cheap airfares, strategies on keeping costs down while flying, optimizing your ticket's value and general industry tips that mostly only insiders know. Most of these tips come from a gentleman who worked for United Airlines for nineteen years. Also, if you have any tips yourself--please submit them via the comment area at the bottom of the article! New tips are always coming in since the industry is always changing. Also, feel welcome to submit airline horror stories (I know we all have them, and so do I!). Anyway, lets continue on topic:

How Airlines Index Their Prices

There are a massive amount of variables that go into how airlines index their prices, and the airfares are changing constantly (sometimes hourly), here is a short list of how airlines configure their prices:

  • The season and major holidays.
  • How large the airport is - the larger it is, the less expensive it will be. Say you live in the bay area of California and you need to fly, use San Francisco (SFO) instead of Oakland (OAK) or San Jose (SJC). Although, the main exception is whether the airline has a hub (a primary headquarters of where an airline flies into [see next tip])
  • Whether the airport is a hub of the given airline - flying in and out of hubs of a specific airline will always be cheaper and will usually make for a trip with less stop-overs.
  • Whether your destination is international or not - If it's international, expect to pay taxes sometimes as large as 40% of the airfare. Domestic taxes are usually around 10-15%
  • Current pensions, salaries, lawsuits against the airline and fuel prices. Note: low fuel prices do not mean lower airfare prices. Airlines like to keep their profit margins high and will try to make up for a period of where high fuel prices cut into their profits. Expect a lag time in the correlation of fuel prices with airfares of up to three years.
  • Stop-Overs - The more stop-overs for your flight, the higher the prices. Flying into and out of hubs is also extremely important in keeping stop-overs down.
  • Landing Fees - Airlines pay a royalty of around $1000 (USD) to the airport they are flying in to. This fee depends on the airport and how much traffic they receive on a daily basis.

It is also important to note that a good indicator of whether an airline is doing well or not is how many fees they charge prior and during your flight. If an airline is charging for snacks, pillows, water, luggage and blankets, the chances are that the airline is not doing well.

Airline Hub Media & Information

Flights departing and arriving from Dallas-Forth Worth (DFW), just from American Airlines.  This is their primary hub.  Photo courtesy of
Flights departing and arriving from Dallas-Forth Worth (DFW), just from American Airlines. This is their primary hub. Photo courtesy of
A different type of hub map (JetBlue).  See the map's key for details.  Photo courtesy of
A different type of hub map (JetBlue). See the map's key for details. Photo courtesy of

Software to Finding Cheap Airfares

There is an infinite amount of software and thus websites to help you find the best price for your flight. It is often difficult to decipher which website is willing to give you the best airfare. It is important to note this now before continuing: If you can help it--do not, I repeat do not order tickets over the phone. Every airline that I know of (besides Southwest and no-frills airlines such as Ryanair) will charge you a fee of up to $50 to place an order over the phone.

The primary software I recommend for finding an inexpensive flight is ITA Software (developed by MIT). It uses the best and most complex matrix to date to find you the cheapest coach seats. It will tell you the given price and will tell you where you can find it. If you are looking for a business or first class seat, then I recommend, which is good at finding cheap coach seats, but is excellent at finding business or first class seating (sometimes the same price as coach). Keep in mind that is in the beta stages and is only open to TravelZoo VIPs. You can easily subscribe to TravelZoo and become a VIP via e-mail.

There are other websites that use excellent matrices as well. uses a pop-up oriented matrix that shows up to nine different sites for a given flight path at once. I highly recommend this software. Also, keep in mind that all this software is free to use.

Here is a short list of sites that use excellent / good / or mediocre software. Note: pricing can be deceptive, some honest websites put the final airfare up front (with taxes included), other sites try to lure you in with showing the price without the taxes. Investigate before you buy!

Note: All the sites I reference below will be found on the bottom of the list. Also, I list a website that is owned by an airline, I am doing this because I believe it gives some of the best airfares in the industry:

Excellent Software

  • ITA Software (make sure you log in as 'guest', search by the month! [much cheaper that way])

Note: You will never find southwest in any matrix besides it's own site. This is designed to keep costs down for the consumer, and southwest is the industry leader in this area. I recommend flying Southwest if you are flying domestic. The primary reason their airfares are so low is because they snagged a fuel contract a few decades ago that made their fuel costs pennies on the dollar compared to all other airlines.

Good Software

  • Travelocity
  • Priceline
  • Orbitz
  • Expedia
  • Hotwire

Mediocre Software (note: before using these specific sites, see if they charge you a fee before checking out)

  • (can be competitive with aggressive sales)
  • (very hit or miss, often a miss)

Big No-No's in Finding Cheap Airfares

  • Don't ever use a travel agency. It's not worth it. Expect fees of $50-$500 or up to 30% of your airfare / vacation cost. Do it yourself and spend your money on something else. Some websites such as travelocity act as a concierge and will help you with any issues you may have on your trip.
  • Don't ever pay a fee for utilizing a site's software. Let the airline take the fee cost (since most airlines pay the refering site up to 15%)--you pay enough fees already.
  • Because it's worth repeating--don't purchase tickets over the phone, it's just not worth it.
  • Flying out of small airports that aren't the airline's hubs. Once again, that was worth repeating.
  • Direct flights between non-hub locations are often much more expensive, (unless it is a hub-to-hub flight).  Try to pick an airlines that has a hub at one of those two locations (departure or arrival, it doesn't matter).
  • Buy six to two weeks ahead of time ahead of time. This "6 to 2" weeks in advance concept keeps the airlines guessing at how much of the flight's seats will actually be filled--they will make the tickets cheaper to in this "6 to 2" period to assure filled capacity for the upcoming flight.

One Man's Perspective: Airline Trends

Here is a list below of airline price and service trends that I have researched over the years, and the airline respectively. They are listed in order from best to worst in terms of cheap airfares:

  • Southwest Airlines - Gloriously cheap airfares in the lower-48.
  • Alaska Airlines - Cheap airfares for destinations in Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii. These inexpensive prices are from seen to & from California.
  • TACA/Mexicana - Some of the cheapest airfares when flying from the US to Mexico (Cancun, Guadalajara, Mexico City)
  • JetBlue - when flying hub-to-hub, JetBlue's prices are hard to beat. Keep in mind that they only fly in North America.
  • American Airlines - Generally some of the cheapest flights available, although some airfares may be slightly higher--in the moderate range. Great prices for the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America.
  • Continental Airlines - Generally low-medium prices. Keep in mind that their customer service and steward/stewardess service is known to be subpar. They rank as one of the most likely airlines to lose your luggage.
  • United Airlines - You never really know whether your airfare is low or high with United Airlines. Do some research and flight comparisons before flying with them.
  • Delta Airlines - Once an industry leader in low prices; this is no more. High prices are common, but are not always. I don't recommend flying with them unless it is hub-to-hub. Their customer service is rated as one of the best in the industry, though. Only US airline that flies to Africa.
  • Northwest Airlines - Merged with Delta. See above. Unless you are flying out of Minneapolis, or are going to Honolulu, you probably won't find a competitive price.
  • US Airways - Most of their prices are relatively very high, sometimes the prices are reasonable when flying out of Phoenix. One of the least successful airlines to date in terms of revenue, competitive pricing, customer service, perks & amenities, and plane cleanliness. I would only use US Airways when flying to (and from) Phoenix, AZ, Charlotte, NC or Philadelphia, PA.

Airlines Hub List

Here is a list of Airlines and their correlating hubs & FAA symbols in perentheses. Fly out of these airports whenever you can, and transfer to another hub of theirs if you can. You will thank me later:

  • Southwest - Too many focus cities to list.
  • JetBlue - New York (JFK), Boston (BOS), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Long Beach (LGB), Orlando (MCO), Washington-Dulles (IAD).
  • American Airlines - Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), St. Louis (STL), San Juan (SJU), Miami (MIA), Chicago-O'Hare (ORD).
  • Continental Airlines - Guam (GUM), Cleveland (CLE), Houston (IAH), Newark (EWR).
  • United Airlines - Denver (DEN), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago-O'Hare (ORD), San Francisco (SFO), Washington-Dulles (IAD).
  • Delta Airlines - Atlanta (ATL), Cincinnati (CVG), New York (JFK), Salt Lake City (SLC).
  • Northwest Airlines - Minneapolis (MSP), Detriot (DTW), Memphis (MEM), Amsterdam (???), Tokyo (???)
  • US Airways - Charlotte-Douglas (CLT), Philadelphia (PHL), Phoenix (PHX).

Help Others Find Cheap Airfares!

"We don't need no stinkin' Software!"

Just kidding--we do need it, for now. Help add to this article by submitting your comments, tips and industry advice on how others can find cheap airfares as well!

Try to plan your flights during the off-peak travel season, this will vary by region. You can save up to 70% if you travel during an off-peak season! If you are using airline miles with a specific airlines, it is less expensive to use your miles during off-peak travel, a 10-20% discount on airline miles is common during off-peak travel.

Also, I recommend getting e-mail updates from several different sites. Make a separate e-mail account and watch for good deals. There are great deals out there if you look hard enough and keep yourself updated.

Good luck on your next travel, make sure to check the sites i've listed to see if there are any discrepencies with the article--I always appreciate a good correction or two!


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    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Wow, lots of great information about airlines and pricing trends. Never knew most of this, and I'm pretty travel savvy. I'll be linking this to my airline hub.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a useful post. Thank you for sharing.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hey Direxmd,

      I think American Airlines stands out from the all the airlines you mentioned because of their low

      airfare guarantee. I am not sure if you can go back and edit your post but you should also point out that they offer $50 promo code if you find a lower fare on another website for the same flight.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Try getting an OTA to help you when you are in distress?

    • Direxmd profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago


      airfares fluctuate depending on the matrix the airline / organizing corporation (orbitz, expedia, etc.) is using, time of year, and many other external & internal factors. I will attempt to update this page with further knowledge when available


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Its a great information. You telling about Software to find the cheap airfare can these all software provides the correct information for Cheap Airfare.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      I've always had good luck with Kayak. They're fast, comprehensive, and don't charge a fee. I do believe they don't include every airline though (like Southwest and JetBlue, for example, although none of the aggregator sites seem to).

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hi Direx, if ever I find myself being stranded in the US someday...I'll contact you for help to get me somewhere... hehehe

    • Direxmd profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago


      It's true, the larger the airport, the less landing fees cost for the airlines. In many metro areas that have two or more airports, airlines have had to choose only one of them due to cost cutting measures.


      Thanks so much! I feel honored :) and yeah, it is really useful information. I fly all the time and have been to most of the United States' airports.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Two hubs in the hubnuggets? Wow! Congratulations :-) How to get cheaper airfares...I believe many people would be interested to know this.

      Do vote for this hub if you found it useful and informative: Join the hubnugget fun! Vote now..

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      You are so right about using the larger airports. When I lived in NM, it was less expensive for me to drive 4 hours to Albuquerque and rent a hotel room for the night than to fly from one of the airports that were only an hour and a half away. The airfare at the more convenient airports was $100 to $200 more per ticket! Thanks for the advice.


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