The best way to buy airline tickets

Here's your guide to the best way to buy airline tickets.

From phoning a travel agent to clicking an airline site, there are many ways to book air travel. Maybe too many. So what’s the best way to buy airline tickets?

It depends. Here’s a guide to help you sort it out:

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What you need to know before you fly anywhere

If you haven’t flown in a few years, you need to know a few important things first. Flying is a completely different experience because of COVID-19. Airlines require masks, and some are blocking middle seats. That will probably continue through 2021. Air carriers have reduced their meals and drink service to boxes of food and bottled water handed to passengers mid-flight.

Beyond that, the airline business model has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis in the last decade or two. Gone are the days when air carriers earned money by selling tickets to passengers. They now make most of their profits from loyalty programs, specifically selling miles and points to credit card companies. Airlines also earn significant money from what they call ancillary fees, like advance seat assignments and ticket change fees.

How should I book my airline ticket?

Here’s how you can buy an airline ticket:

Use a travel agent

Typically, travel agents don’t receive a commission for booking airfare. Many advisors will only book a ticket if you ask them to, and usually as part of a package. And some agents charge a service fee for airline tickets. Some fares, such as complex multistop or multiairline flights, or an around-the-world ticket, are best left to a professional. Agents also have access to wholesale fares that you might not find online. But be warned that some of these fares come with significant restrictions. For a simple point-to-point itinerary, you may be better off booking yourself.

Book directly

Airlines will happily sell you a ticket through their websites or by phone. If you go that route first, you’ll lose the ability to run a side-by-side price comparison with a competing airline. An airline may also charge a fee to buy a ticket by phone, and it may quote you a higher fare than the one you’d find online. You’ll also receive some benefits, however, such as the ability to customize your fare with optional items like the ability to check a bag, get a confirmed seat reservation, or advance-buy Wi-Fi packages. Airlines sometimes offer direct-booking customers a mileage bonus. You’re also working directly with the airline, so you don’t have a travel agent to call for help if you need to change the ticket, and you’ll be bound by that airline’s policies for changes.

Buy through an online travel agency or aggregator

Online agencies such as Expedia or aggregator sites like Kayak display most available airfares. This allows you to quickly compare the most convenient routing and find the most affordable ticket price. What’s more, if something goes wrong, you can, at least in theory, call the online agency for help with everything from rebooking a flight to obtaining a refund. Online agencies are excellent research tools, allowing you to search for the lowest available fare, and then book wherever you want. But these sites will not display every airline, every fare combination, or every route. Instead, they might show fares from airlines with which they have preferred relationships — called fare bias. Note: Southwest Airlines, the biggest domestic U.S. carrier, does not make its fares available to Expedia, Orbitz, and other online travel sites. You’ll need to visit Southwest Airlines to find its fares.

Book opaque

One useful term to know is “opaque,” which means “not transparent.” We refer to sites like Priceline and Hotwire as “opaque” sites because they either partially or totally conceal the price, company and exact itinerary until you’ve paid for them. Sites such as Priceline or Hotwire, which allow you to “bid” for a seat, offer discounts of between 20 and 40 percent on some routes. In exchange, you give up certain important benefits, which can include determining the exact departure time, the airline, the precise routing, and the ability to reserve a seat, collect frequent flier miles, or change a ticket. Opaque sites are a great option for leisure travelers who are flexible or who are willing to fly somewhere without being on a specific schedule. Most airlines charge more for fares booked at the last minute, so when you need to fly in the next seven days and are flexible, the opaque option may work best.

How do I know if I really have a ticket?

Most airline tickets are known as e-tickets, or travel documents that are stored in a database that can be retrieved when needed. So if you’re not getting a piece of paper, how do you know if the ticket is any good? Right after your travel agent sends you your confirmation, go to the airline’s website and check the status of your e-ticket. The way to do this is by using the booking reference (a/k/a record locator or Passenger Name Record, PNR), which is a code containing 6 letters or numbers — e.g., ENCS2U. Also, be aware that if you booked through a third-party site, that site might have a different record locator. A valid e-ticket will show as “issued” and open for use. A good e-ticket will remain open for use until you check in. If it isn’t, call your agent or airline.

What if my airline is bankrupt?

That’s an increasingly common problem amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Avoid booking flights on an airline that has filed for bankruptcy protection. There are no meaningful federal protections for airline passengers. If your airline goes out of business, your ticket will be worthless. If you’re trying to get a refund from a bankrupt airline, your quickest path may be a credit card dispute. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have a right to file a chargeback for services you paid for but were not delivered. But don’t wait. You have 60 days from the date of your purchase to file a dispute. Our readers have also had some success obtaining a refund by contacting federal regulators, such as the Department of Transportation.

How do I find the lowest airfare?

Airlines use sophisticated algorithms to calculate demand for their seats. These yield management systems mean that the price you’re being quoted for a flight may not be the lowest one. It’s derived from demand for that flight based on historical averages. What’s more, if you don’t push the “buy” button now, the fare may be gone in a few minutes. Air travelers often find these systems frustrating and unfair, but remember if you buy, U.S. carriers are required to either “hold” your ticket for 24 hours or offer you a full refund, with certain exceptions.

Unfortunately, fixing the system isn’t as simple as it sounds. For example, if you’ve ever tried to buy a ticket and had the site tell you that the fare was “unavailable” (though a more expensive one was), then you’ve probably felt like the victim of a bait-and-switch. Truth is, you were probably a victim of caching — the practice of storing data on a site so that it can be retrieved quickly. The website just failed to refresh the data, so when you tried to buy the ticket, it was shown as already gone. The lowest advertised fare, or a special sale fare, also might not be available on your day of travel, especially if it’s a Friday or the day before a major holiday.

Are there any tricks to finding a bargain on an international ticket?

In addition to the usual suspects — online agencies like Expedia and meta-search sites like Kayak — you can find deals through ticket consolidators. These are often offline (bricks and mortar) agents who buy tickets in bulk and then resell them to the public. Note: There may be additional restrictions with these types of tickets, so read the fine print carefully, please. During the pandemic, many of these special fares were a use-it-or-lose-it proposition — and passengers lost.

When should I buy my airline ticket?

Book a ticket when you need it. Research suggests that if you buy your ticket when most people do — between one and four months before you fly — you’re likely to find the lowest price. Don’t push the button too early or too late, because fares tend to rise, especially as you close in on your departure date. Some airfare soothsayers claim you can find a bargain by waiting until a particular day and time, like Wednesday at 1 a.m. in the airline’s time zone. But the savings are minimal and probably not worth your time, not to mention the lost sleep.

Can you recommend any tools for finding lower fares?

Yes. Most airlines publish free electronic newsletters or email alerts, but you can also sign up for email notifications from a third-party site like FareCompare or online travel agencies like Orbitz. They’ll let you know if your desired ticket is on sale. Legitimate fare sales don’t last long, so don’t hesitate if you see something you want to book.

A fare predictor such as AirHint can also help you determine if prices are still too high, and if they’re likely to fall. Again, don’t wait too long; airfares usually rise 14 days before the scheduled flight, and then again seven days before the flight departs. Wait too long and you can pay a lot more than you wanted. If you’re flying 6 months from now, it might be wise to wait for a fare sale, but don’t expect ticket prices to drop a month from departure.

Once you’ve purchased your fare, you can also use a fare tracker SkyScanner, which helps secure a refund of the fare difference if the price of your ticket drops. Note: Most major airlines will not refund a fare difference unless it’s more than $150, so don’t get too excited.

I think I overpaid for my flight. What now?

Relax. Your airfare probably represents no more than a third of your trip expenses. You’ll save yourself lots of time and misery by taking a deep breath and following this advice: If you see an airfare you can afford, book it now, and don’t look back.

You might be able to find a less expensive fare, but I can practically guarantee that you’ll waste hours trying to find it — hours that could be better spent doing something more productive.

Airlines have spent a small fortune on yield management technology, but foiling it by subscribing to every fare alert newsletter, reading every airfare blog, and using every tool at your disposal in order to save $10 on your next flight is a meaningless victory. Ask yourself: Is your time really worth only a few dollars an hour? Probably not.

I’m getting married, and I can’t wait to take my husband’s last name. Should I do that before my honeymoon?

No. Wait until after your honeymoon. I’ve lost count of the number of times a devastated newlywed contacted me, asking for help changing the name on her ticket back to her maiden name, so she could catch a flight to her honeymoon. Some airlines will change the last name as a courtesy, if you can show a marriage license — but don’t count on it. Always book the name on your passport.

I’m not a frequent flier. What do I need to know about air travel?

If you only fly occasionally, you might be in for a surprise the next time you board a plane. Here are a few of the recent changes you’ll notice:

Air travel is “commoditized”

There’s virtually no difference between airlines if you’re flying in economy class. This is called commoditization, and it’s perhaps the biggest change since the industry was deregulated in 1978 during the Carter administration. As far as passengers are concerned, a seat is a seat. Unfortunately, this removes some of the motivation to create a better economy class section. In the minds of many air travelers, it’s a race to the bottom, with narrow, uncomfortable seats and no legroom as the industry standard. Today, while the planes are usually the same, Delta or JetBlue tend to have slightly more space in economy class than budget carriers. Some airlines have begun trying to monetize on-board features such as adequate legroom or early boarding and squeeze even more revenue out of passengers.

Most tickets come with lots of limitations

Most airline tickets are super restrictive. If you want to make a change on some tickets, you’ll pay a $100 to $200 fee plus any fare difference. You can’t easily correct the name on a reservation, sometimes even to fix a typographical error. If you miss your flight, the airline will offer to put you on the next flight if you buy a new ticket. These restrictions are bound to get even tighter as airlines come up with new ways to create more revenue. Airlines sell unrestricted tickets, but they are often two to three times more expensive than a restricted ticket. Typically, the only folks who can afford them are business travelers.

There’s a fee for almost everything

Airlines used to earn most of their revenue from the sale of tickets. But today, in part because of competition, higher fuel prices, and changing business models, airlines generate a sizable portion of their profits through fees. You’ll probably pay extra to check your bags, and maybe for an advance seat assignment. Meals are also extra if you’re sitting in economy class on a domestic flight. While some airlines will do their best to disclose all surcharges as early in the booking process as possible, others try to profit through “gotcha” fees added after you’ve made your purchase. You should assume that everything will cost extra.

How do I find the best economy class seat?

If you want an edge on those airlines that think one size fits all, you’re in luck. Sites such as Seat Expert and Seat Guru can tell you exactly how much space (in inches) there is between seats on all airlines as well as the seat width.

What’s a preflight checklist? Why do I need one?

Before you fly, here’s an essential checklist. Ignore these basics and you might not be able to fly.

  • Is your name spelled correctly?
  • Are the dates right? Are your times correct? (AM or PM)
  • Do you have a confirmation number, and/or have you confirmed the flight with your agent or airline?
  • Do the airline and travel agent have your most up-to-date contact information?
  • Have you verified where your flight is leaving from and which airline is operating it? (Some flights are “codeshare” flight operated by another airline, operating out of a different terminal.)

Is it OK to miss a leg of my flight?

Generally, no. Most airlines will automatically cancel all remaining flight bookings in your itinerary if you miss one flight segment, even if it was not your fault that you couldn’t catch the flight. If you miss one segment, let the airline know so it can rebook you. If you don’t let it know, you may get stuck on a stopover and have to pay for a new full-fare ticket to continue your trip and return home.

What’s a contract of carriage, and why should I care about it?

A contract of carriage, sometimes also referred to as the conditions of carriage, is the legal agreement between you and the airline. It is by far the most important reference when it comes to your rights as an air traveler.

The contract usually comes in at least two flavors: the domestic contract, which regulates U.S. flights, and the international contract. These are legally binding contracts. The U.S. government requires airlines to follow them, although it doesn’t set them. In other words, if an airline says it will offer a hotel room to passengers on a delayed flight, then the carrier must do so, although the government doesn’t say it must put that provision in the contract. Additionally, a ticket tariff — that’s the fine print in the actual ticket — informs you of other restrictions, and federal laws and regulations may also apply. But the contract is key.

The system is hopelessly stacked against the passenger. Should I exact my revenge by becoming a travel hacker?

It’s true, airline rules can be so hopelessly confusing and counterintuitive. They’re just begging to be gamed.

Consider this scenario: You need to fly from New York to Chicago for two days, without a Saturday night stayover. The fares are ridiculously expensive. But you can buy two roundtrip tickets and throw away one portion of each one — a practice called “throwaway ticketing” — and pay less than that first option.

This is a perfectly legal use of a ticket, but it violates the airline’s rules, which, oddly, stipulate that you must use the entire ticket as issued.

My advice? Don’t go for option two, because the airline has sophisticated tracking software that will hunt down your hacking butt and confiscate your frequent flier miles or even bill you the fare difference. And whatever you do, don’t get your agent involved in this kind of nonsense. Your agent could lose her ability to ticket the airline unless she pays a nonnegotiable “debit” memo, or fine.

What do I need to know about an airline contract of carriage?

  • It’s an “adhesion” contract that applies only to you. The contract of carriage is one-sided, binding passengers, but not the airline. So, for example, if you cancel your flight before you leave, you may lose some or all of the value of your ticket. If an airline cancels the flight, it may be able to get away with it.
  • You can’t negotiate it. Think you can make revisions and send it back to the airline? Not a chance. You agree to it when you buy your ticket. In fact, you agreed to it without knowing that you agreed to it.
  • It can change anytime without warning. Airlines often revise their contracts, and when they do, they do not tell their customers. So the terms you see now may not be the same terms as when you fly. For what it’s worth, most contract revisions are fairly minor, but it’s still worth noting that they can change.

What does “nonrefundable” mean?

Nonrefundable means no refunds — usually.

Airlines will always refund a nonrefundable ticket if you die before your flight, sending the money to your next of kin. (Real helpful, I know.) They’ll refund a ticket if your flight’s canceled. Sometimes they’ll refund your ticket or waive their change fee if a close relative dies (as long as you can show a death certificate), or (even more rarely) they’ll offer a refund if you fall ill and can’t make the flight.

There’s a good reason why airline tickets are nonrefundable. Every empty seat is a missed opportunity to make money. An airline doesn’t get paid when a seat flies empty. But at the same time, airlines delay or cancel flights for all kinds of reasons, including the weather, acts of God, crew issues, and mechanical problems — often with few or no penalties. Shouldn’t the airlines show a little flexibility from time to time?

Airline deregulation

In the years immediately after airline deregulation, many airlines would allow you to talk your way into almost anything — including, sometimes, a full refund for a nonrefundable ticket.

Airlines weren’t just being Mr. Nice Guy; they were being Mr. Pushover, and it was costing them real money. After 9/11, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Perhaps too far in the other direction — resulting in policies despised by both airline employees and passengers, including one called “No Waivers, No Favors” that forced employees to stick to the published rules, no matter how onerous those rules were.

Airlines softened their rules a little after their profits returned. During the pandemic, they offered refunds when they canceled their flights and occasionally even when passengers canceled. But generally speaking, they’re still likely to stick to their post-9/11 playbook today, unless you happen to be one of their favorite elite-level customers.

What is code-sharing, and why should I care about it?

Codesharing is an agreement that allows two or more airlines to “share” a flight. So between New York and London, you can have a British Airways flight operating a British Airways aircraft, but it’s also listed as an American Airlines flight, “operated” by British Airways. Codesharing can be confusing to passengers, allowing airlines to shirk their customer-service responsibilities — which is why you need to know about it.

  • Always pay attention to the flight details. The Transportation Department requires that every codesharing flight be disclosed at the time you buy it. So, look for “Airline X operated by Airline Y” when you’re making your reservation. Mostly, these are “Express” airlines operating shorter flights for a larger airline, but for long-haul international trips, it’s not uncommon to see three different airlines listed under one ticket.
  • Most of the time, the rules of the operating carrier apply to the entire flight. Airlines have different requirements for luggage, refunds, and miles, but remember: the rules of the first airline, which is known as the “operating” carrier, should apply to your entire flight. The government holds airlines to these agreements, so if you’re hit with a luggage fee on a codeshare flight, and the airline won’t refund the fee after you ask, then let the Transportation Department know about it.
  • If something goes wrong, ask the carrier that sold you the ticket for help first. The airline that sold you the ticket should take responsibility when something goes wrong, even if the problem is on the second airline, sometimes also called the “marketing” carrier.
  • When you have a question far from home. If your ticket covers multiple airlines, or you don’t know which airline is operating your flight, and you’ve arrived in a foreign airport, just ask an airline employee for assistance. Most airports have multilingual help desks, and they are usually well versed in airline issues. Alternatively, ask your hotel concierge to call the airline, if needed. Make sure you know how early to check in if you’re far from home. It’s best to write that time on your itinerary before you even leave home.
  • Don’t get caught in the middle. Codeshare alliances allow for an infinite game of finger-pointing between the operating and marketing carriers. Don’t put up with it. Contact the Transportation Department, which will help sort things out. After all, airlines rely on the government for approval to jointly operate these flights, which can decrease competition. They don’t want to run afoul of regulators.

Whom should I contact when I have a problem?

Ideally, you won’t experience any trouble with your flight. Roughly 75 percent of all flights are on time. Your plane will probably leave as scheduled, and you’ll almost certainly arrive safely. You can find your flight’s on-time record online, using a search tool like FlightStats. But if you experience a problem, your first step should be to contact the airline right then and there. Don’t wait.

For example, say you have a problem with your in-flight entertainment system; the best time to speak up is now. A flight attendant may be able to reseat you, or offer you a drink voucher to make up for the trouble. That’s far more meaningful than holding in the anger the entire flight and then sending an angry missive to the airline — an email that will likely be replied to with a form response and a meaningless certificate that must be used on a future flight.

Contact the carrier directly as soon as possible if you have a problem. If you don’t receive a satisfactory response, try one of the executive contacts I list on my site.

Many air travelers get in touch with me because they have a problem with an airline rule, specifically one of the rules relating to ticket changes or fares. That’s also a common complaint to the government.

Waiving airline rules

Airlines sometimes waive their rules during special circumstances. For example, if there’s a major winter storm approaching that affects their flight operations, they’ll relax their change fee and allow you to reschedule your flight. But it doesn’t necessarily go both ways. If you can’t make a flight because of a natural disaster in your area that affected a small number of people, an airline probably won’t extend the same courtesy.

The U.S. Department of Transportation oversees domestic airlines. You can send a complaint to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The best way to get in touch with DOT is in writing, through its website.

The DOT doesn’t mediate disputes, at least not officially, but if you can show that an airline violated its own contract or federal law, then it will contact the carrier on your behalf. Nothing makes an airline move faster than an email ending in dot.gov. Even if it turns out that the airline was following the law, it will get you a fast response.

How do I get DOT to review my case?

  • Put your complaint in writing. Even though you can call DOT, you will have more success creating a paper trail, and it will be easier to track. Here’s how to contact DOT.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Find the exact rule or regulation the airline violated. If possible, point to a previous DOT decision or advisory that sets a precedent.
  • Be polite. Like all government agencies, the Aviation Consumer Protection Division is stretched to the limit. It can’t take every case. Your good manners will set you apart from the other, sometimes shrill, complaints received by the agency.

How do I persuade the airline to review my case?

Airlines operate call centers with thousands of employees whose job it is to quickly answer your questions. About half the customer queries come by phone. The rest come via email, snail mail, or some form of social media like Twitter or Facebook.

Unless you’re in a situation that requires an immediate, real-time resolution — for example, the airline canceled your flight and you need rebooked — I’d recommend sending something to the carrier in writing.

Why? Because it creates a “paper trail” that can be saved if necessary. This will show the airline that you’ve gone through all the right channels to get this resolved, in the event that you need to appeal to a supervisor. While it’s true that the airlines log customer-service calls and sometimes record them, you’re not going to have access to those files. That puts you at a serious disadvantage when you’re trying to fix something.

Steps to resolving your airline problem

  1. Always start at the front door.
    Send a short, polite email to the airline through its website. Every airline offers a “contact us” section. It may seem silly, but you’ll see why this is important in a minute. Offer a brief description of your problem and a desired resolution. Don’t forget to include your name, flight dates, and record locator, the alphanumeric code associated with your reservation. And make a screenshot of your submission, because otherwise, you’ll have no record that you contacted the airline.
  2. Offer a concise, reasoned rebuttal.
    Most airline systems create a tracking number based on the query. This guarantees that no customer enquiries slip through the cracks. Be sure to include your case number in every reply. If the airline sends you a scripted “no” response after the autoresponder acknowledging your initial complaint, you’ll want to follow up with a polite rebuttal. Include any relevant documentation, such as a doctor’s note, death certificate, or a photo of damaged luggage (with a date stamp).
  3. Appeal to a higher authority, if necessary.  
    We list the names, numbers, and email addresses of the airline customer service VPs in the Elliott Advocacy company contacts database. Be aware that it’s rare for them to become personally involved in a case. But your well-reasoned appeal will ensure that a senior customer-service employee will review your request.

Make your complaint short and sweet

What works? Generally, complaints that are tight and polite get the fastest resolutions. If you include all of your specifics and suggest a reasonable resolution, chances are you’ll never have to write an appeal. If you send a lengthy, emotional email, and don’t suggest a resolution, or if you make an unreasonable demand, like “two first-class tickets anywhere your airline flies” or to have a flight attendant fired for being rude to you, your complaint will likely end in frustration.

Can I sue an airline?

Yes and no. Because of a federal preemption provision to the Federal Aviation Act, you must sue an airline in federal court in most cases. But for smaller complaints, you can take an airline to small claims court. There, you can represent yourself, and the odds are fairly good that an airline won’t bother to send a representative. That will allow you to win by default.

What if the name on my ticket doesn’t exactly match my passport?

Airlines claim they “can’t” change the name on your ticket for security reasons.

That’s more or less true 24 hours before departure, when the Department of Homeland Security scans all passenger lists for terror risk. But before then, the real reason is that they are protecting their revenues. The airlines don’t want to transfer the name on a ticket to someone else, and lose the money they would have pocketed for a new ticket. As long as the change is minor — two or fewer letters — airlines should fix the misspelling at no charge. Remember that, by law, airlines must allow cancellations at no charge within 24 hours of ticket purchase. If you booked the wrong name just after hitting “buy” – then cancel it immediately by calling the airline.

What if you’re stuck with a “nuisance” fee?

Airlines have added a series of fees that passengers find highly annoying. These include fees for advance seat reservations, for special seat assignments, or for the first piece of luggage. You can negotiate these fees. For example, you can easily avoid the luggage fee by carrying your bag on the plane with you. If there’s no room in the overhead bins, you’ll usually get a complimentary gate check. (A better solution, however, would be to pack light.)

How long should I wait for a response?

Airlines offer an immediate response if you email through a website. But that’s often nothing more than a polite autoresponder with a tracking number. For simple requests, expect to hear back within seven business days. For more involved queries, four to six weeks is fairly standard. (You can find more detailed information about this process in my article about fixing your own consumer problem.)

One of the most common questions I get involves refunds. An airline may take its time sending your money back to you. Wait at least two credit card billing cycles before panicking. I’ve had cases that took one or even two years.

If you’re asking for a refund of a package vacation tour, it will go through your travel agent or tour operator. If that’s the case, then the refund may take even longer.

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