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From using airline credit cards to intentionally getting bumped off a flight, here’s how to save on airline travel.

4 minute read

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The advice for how to save money on flights is literally up in the air.

With airfares rising [1] and airplane seats shrinking [2], passengers seem to get less for what they pay. But when it comes to tickets and fees, there are ways for savvy passengers to save on flights. Some tips are more well known, but others are more obscure. Starting with the most obvious and working our way towards the weirdest, here are some ways to save on airline travel.

1. Use an airline credit card

We have a love-hate relationship with airline mileage credit cards. The airlines and the banks know we’re suckers for the prospect of a “free” trip to anywhere.

Nevertheless, there’s still value in airline mileage credit cards, but only for those who are savvy enough to use the best ones. Look for cards with the greatest sign-up bonus, and don’t be afraid to get one from an airline and another from a hotel chain.

If you live near a major airline hub, you should think about getting an airline-specific card. Some of the best are:

  • American Airlines
  • Southwest
  • Delta

Some of these cards charge an annual fee that can run up to $400, and it might just be worth it if you travel often. But do the math and see what works for you.

Here are some of the best general airline mile cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
  • Discover It Miles Card
  • The Platinum Card from American Express

You can make your everyday purchases on those cards, and redeem them for airline miles. The next part is really important: Always pay your credit card statements in full and on time. Certainly, those who will use these cards to make unnecessary purchases and incur debt shouldn’t try earning free travel this way. But for those who avoid interest by paying their balances in full each month, this strategy is your ticket to your next dream-trip.

Finally, you’ll want to learn everything you can about getting the most value from the points and miles you have. For example, major airlines are partners with many other carriers around the world. You can use your miles for flights on their airplanes.

2. Fly discount airlines

If you’re picky about your comfort on planes, skip this step.

If not, prepare to fly some of the most complained-about (but cheapest) airlines in the U.S., like Spirit, Allegiant, or Frontier airlines [3]. They have non-reclining seats, iPad-sized tray tables, no Wi-Fi, no back-of-the-seat TVs, and less legroom than other airlines.

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But a frugal flyer can save more than $100 flying with a company famed for leaving customers feeling nickeled-and-dimed.

The first step for saving big with discount airlines is to check their website for comparison flights. And while it may be tempting to book online right then and there, don’t.

The second step for spending less is to book a flight in person. Airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant, charge a “passenger usage fee” for booking online or over the phone, which is usually around $20. You can avoid this fee by booking a flight at the airport.

3. Travel light to save money on bags

Most airlines, with the exception of Frontier and Spirit (which give no free bags), allow you to have one carry-on bag for free. After that, they start charging you, so pack sparingly.

Especially if you’re flying a discount airline, try becoming a backpacker for your trip. If you aren’t traveling for more than a week, you should be able to fit the right amount of clothes into your free personal item.

  • Pack only what you need: Don’t pack multiple outfit changes per day. And remember, washers and dryers do exist.
  • Roll your clothing: You can fit a lot more into your bag if you roll your clothes instead of leaving it in a bulky fold.
  • Wear the clothes you can’t fit in your bag: If your bag is still overflowing, just wear the items that don’t fit. Wear shirts on shirts, or tie sweaters around your waist. After take-off, you can remove those extra layers to form a makeshift neck pillow.

4. Look for hidden city fares

Let’s say you want to fly one-way from New York City to Los Angeles a month or so from now. You could book a direct flight for around $150. Or you could book a $121 flight to Phoenix with a layover in L.A., and never get back on the plane. These kinds of rates are called “hidden city” fares.

Skiplagged is a flight comparison website that analyzes direct and hidden-city routes [4]. Skiplagged was so effective that United Airlines sued the site’s creator in 2014 [5]. But a federal judge dismissed United’s case in 2015 [6].

5. Try flight bumping

Airlines often sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, just to hedge their bets in case a few passengers don’t show. Usually, it works out, and passengers are none the wiser.

But sometimes, flights end up with too many passengers and not enough space. This presents a problem for travelers on set schedules who can’t afford to lose their seats — that’s where flight bumpers come in.

Most commercial airlines offer some kind of travel voucher to those willing to switch to a later, less-crowded flight. The amounts vary based on factors like the length of the flight and date of travel, and they can range from $50 to several thousand dollars. But they’re almost always worth it.

Here are a few tips to make flight bumping work for you:

  • Weekends, middays, and holidays are the most popular times to fly — meaning flights are more likely to be oversold. Go for a late morning or early afternoon weekend flight, especially if it happens to come near a holiday.
  • Look to the most popular airlines and routes in order to have the best chance of being bumped. Many carriers actually make forecasting sellouts very easy to do. Travel aggregator sites will alert you when seat availability is low.
  • Attendants typically announce an oversold flight between 30 and 60 minutes before boarding. If you want to be bumped, you must be present and ready for those calls. To do that, plan to arrive at the airport as early as you can. To be safe, plan for two hours before a domestic flight.
  • When the attendants announce that your flight is overbooked, you may think that pouncing immediately is the best idea. That’s not always true. The perks airlines offer almost always improve as attendants become more desperate to avoid having to forcefully bump otherwise unwilling fliers. The offer that started at $100 in flight vouchers may just balloon three, four, or even five times that if you hold out.

Ultimately, flight bumping is all about doing your homework, knowing your competition, and deciding the best course of action in the moment. If you plan ahead, read the signs, and negotiate, you can get the airlines to pay you to fly.

Cameren Boatner contributed to this report.

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About the Author

Chris Persaud

Chris Persaud

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