Early in the pandemic, with international travel limited and many people still hesitant about travel, domestic deals became a great value. But now as travel has begun to rebound domestically, flights within the US can be even more expensive that international fares. Here's what you need to know to save some cash.
Cheap domestic flights are most likely to pop up 1-3 months in advance.
The Goldilocks Window for when cheap domestic flights are most likely to pop up is 1-3 months before a trip. (For international flights it’s more like 2-8 months out.)
One interesting quirk, though: during the pandemic, last-minute flights have gotten much cheaper. In the Before Times, airlines would jack up the price on last-minute flights to gouge business travelers. But with business travel currently on hiatus, last-minute deals are having a moment.
The price of a roundtrip domestic flight is simple: the outbound flight price + the return flight price. So when you search roundtrip, you're seeing the total between the two. However, though one airline has the cheapest roundtrip price, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has the cheapest one-ways.
Take a flight that's $239 for the outbound and $185 for the return on Delta. When you search roundtrip, the price you'll see is $424. But say United has a flight that's cheaper on one leg. For example, their outbound is only $150 but their return is $300, so the United roundtrip price seems higher at $300.
But by searching for two one-ways, you’ll get United's $150 outbound and Delta's $185 return for a total roundtrip price of $335—much cheaper than than the initial low price of $424.
Sometimes Google Flights (or other flight search engines) will tip you off that fares are cheaper on different carriers, with a little “Separate tickets” note.
But it’s sporadic and they often miss cheaper one-way options. Always double-check for yourself. This trick only works for domestic flights, not international. For reasons too complex (and frankly, boring) to type out, one-way international flights tend to be exorbitantly expensive, whereas the roundtrip price gets discounted significantly.
Many airlines are offering free date changes.
In March, 2020, Delta, United, Alaska, and jetBlue all joined Southwest in automatically waiving change fees on all new bookings (that policy has continued for bookings above basic economy), though you’d still have to pay a fare difference if there is one.
Pre-pandemic it would cost $200+ to change your travel dates. While this current perk probably won’t last much longer, there’s an opportunity now to lock in low fares and have flexibility to change your travel dates later if you don’t feel it’s safe to travel come trip time.
Southwest doesn’t show up on flight search engines.
With open seating and no fees for bags/changes/cancellations, Southwest is a fan favorite. Be sure to account for these perks when comparing fares; all else equal, a $150 Southwest ticket is actually a better deal than a $130 United basic economy ticket.
But remember, Southwest fares don’t show up on Google Flights or any other search engine; gotta search separately on Southwest’s website. So if you want deals like $164 roundtrip to Hawaii, you might not see them if you don't check Southwest (or join SCF! We include Southwest in SCF deals.).
Keep an eye out for fare matches.
Airlines are notorious for playing Follow the Leader; when American puts out a $100 roundtrip fare to Chicago, it’s quite common to see the same fare show up within hours on United, Southwest, et al.
So if you see a fare you like but are hoping for a different airline/routing/flight time, a little patience may pay off.
And if a better flight pops up after you booked, remember the 24-Hour Rule, a federal law that automatically gives travelers a 24-hour grace period after purchase to cancel for a full refund.
Domestic deals last longer.
There’s a rule of thumb with flights: the better the fare, the shorter it lasts.
But while the cheapest international fares are often gone within hours, domestic deals tend to stick around longer, usually at least a few days.
Remember to search flexible dates and alternate airports
As with international flights, the more flexible you can be when searching for domestic deals, the more you stand to save. For weekend trips, it’s sometimes cheaper to shift your dates from the standard Friday to Sunday (e.g. look at Thursday-Sunday or Friday to Monday). For holiday trips, look at flying on the holiday if your plans allow it. It can be a lot cheaper to fly Christmas Day than a day or two before.
Look at alternate airports, too. For example, if you’re planning to visit Santa Fe, consider flying into Albuquerque, which is often cheaper and just an hour’s drive from Santa Fe.
Compare apples to apples when choosing between flights
Don’t forget to factor any fees into your cost comparison when choosing flights, especially if you’re tempted by one of the rock-bottom fares on a budget airline like Spirit, Allegiant, or Frontier. They have so many egregious fees, we don’t even send our members deals on these airlines.
These fares may look like a great deal—and if you can’t find another option and can travel very light, they may work for you—but when you add in all the fees, the “more expensive” options typically come out to be better deals.
As mentioned above, even at $20 more, a Southwest flight—which includes two checked bags, a carryon, and open seating—is a better deal than a United basic economy ticket with extra fees for seat assignments and a full-sized carryon on domestic flights.
Consider connections in these comparisons, too. A connecting flight is sometimes cheaper but if it eats up half your trip time or increases the likelihood of complications (e.g. connecting through Chicago in winter), it may be worth it to pay a little more for a direct flight.