Best Places to Shop for Flights

Best Places to Shop for Flights

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Nowadays, there are countless companies claiming they can help you find the cheapest hotel and flight prices. Despite that, it isn’t all that easy to figure out how to get the best deals on flights, even with all of the resources available to help you do so. We’re looking at you, Kayak and Google Flights.

Researchers here at ValuePenguin wanted to help untangle the flight comparison shopping web. We compared the average fare on the lowest cost carriers (such as Southwest and Spirit) to the average cost on the carriers with the most flights (such as Delta and American) for every route to rank the best places to shop for flights. That way, you can spend less time shopping for flights and more time planning your next vacation or prepping for that important business meeting.

Key findings

  • On average, the carrier with the most flights cost about 32% more than what the carrier with the cheapest prices offered for each route.
  • The route with the biggest difference between carrier with the most flights and low-cost carrier was Los Angeles-Philadelphia. The average fare on the low-cost carrier for that route was $109. The average fare for the carrier with the most flights was $309, for an average savings of $200.
  • Denver-Washington, D.C., was the second best route to shop around on. The average cost of a ticket on the carrier with the most flights was nearly three times the cost on a low-cost carrier. The low-cost carrier could get you between those two capitals for about $106, while the carrier with the most flights offered flights worth $295.
  • Coming in at No. 3 were flights between Houston and Los Angeles. Again, the difference between buying a ticket on the low-cost carrier and the carrier with the most flights was nearly three times (about a $180 difference between fares).
  • At the bottom of the ranking was a number of routes where the carrier with the most flights and the low-cost carrier had similar pricing. This often occurred where Southwest Airlines dominated the route, as was the case for flights between Chicago and Tampa and Dallas and Houston.
  • Southwest Airlines appeared the most on our list. Our analysis showed Southwest Airlines was the low-cost carrier on 47 out of 100 routes and the carrier with the most flights in 20 out of 100 routes.
  • Spirit Airlines offered the lowest cost flights for nine routes while being the carrier with the most flights in none. United had the highest ratio of being the carrier with the most flights to low-cost carrier. It was the carrier with the most flights on 18 routes and the least expensive in four.

The airlines that are the best to shop with

To make the process of finding deals simpler, ValuePenguin researchers compared carriers with the most flights and carriers with the lowest average fares to see how much customers can save on round-trip flights on popular routes. That way, you know if it is actually worth giving up a checked bag or that extra legroom. We discovered that overall, Southwest Airlines is the way to go for affordable flights. This airline was found on our list of low-cost carriers for almost 50% of the routes analyzed.

Spirit Airlines also provided affordable options, landing nine spots on the list of lowest cost flights. On no routes though was it the carrier with the most flights. Delta was a bit of a wild card, but savings can also be found with that airline. Delta was the carrier with the most flights on 20 routes, but was also the least expensive on six routes.

No one airline can guarantee you the most savings on all flights, but it is worth investigating which airlines have great deals for your chosen route. Especially when you consider that our research found that the carrier with the most flights cost about 32% more than the carrier with the lowest costs for each route on average.

It is worth noting before booking a low-cost carrier to compare the costs of not just your ticket, but any necessary upgrades. Many low-cost carriers, such as Frontier, Allegiant or Spirit, charge extra for choosing a seat, checking a bag and or for water while on board. In the end, a higher cost airline that includes these offerings may cost the same or less as flying with a discount airline.

The routes that have the best savings

While airfare can be expensive, prices are more competitive than ever before. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ estimated that U.S. airlines alone carried an all-time high number of travelers, estimated at 77.9 million (domestic and international) passengers in July 2019. As passenger traffic is increasing, prices are decreasing. The average price of domestic itinerary airfare in Q3 2019 was $345. This is the lowest annual fare recorded since 1995 when these numbers were first tracked.

Airfare deals vary greatly, because of considerations like seasonality, load factors and current events. Slow sales or a need to compete with another airline can make flight prices drop. Certain routes may offer better deals if an airport is home to a low-cost carrier. Be warned, you might have to say goodbye to legroom and checked bags to say hello to savings on a low-cost carrier.

The winner for the biggest price difference between carriers is the Los Angeles-Philadelphia route. Passengers can save on average $200 by choosing the low-cost carrier for this route.

The second place route between Denver and Washington, D.C., saw similarly high savings when forgoing the carrier with the most flights. Passengers can look for savings of nearly $189 when they choose to fly with a low-cost carrier on this route. Coming in third place was the route between Houston and Los Angeles, with potential savings of $180 between different types of carriers.

How to use your credit card to your advantage

Taking out a credit card designed to earn travel rewards, or choosing one associated with an airline you commonly fly, can help you reap even more benefits and savings. Some of the perks offered by popular travel rewards cards can include free checked bags, in-flight discounts, travel credits, access to airport lounges, companion airfare passes and discounts on other travel necessities like ride-sharing apps. Additionally, you can expect to accrue an initial stash of points or miles just for signing up with the card. There are many types of travel rewards cards available that may be a good fit for you. Compare your travel rewards card options before signing up for one.

Other ways to save on travel

Shopping around for the best deals on flights is a great place to start, but there are more ways to save that you can take advantage of.

Book at the right time. Booking your flight too far in advance or too close to your departure date can cost you. A good rule of thumb is to book flights for popular business destinations like New York City or Washington, D.C., three months in advance. If you’re planning your trip well in advance, consider setting price alerts through a travel company such as Hopper or TravelPirates. You can choose your ideal destination and travel time period, and these companies will send you alerts when really good flight deals arise. Then you can book with some peace of mind knowing you got a good deal.

Sign up for airline rewards programs. It may be an extra step, but if you fly a certain airline frequently, you’ll definitely want to sign up for its rewards program and improve your odds of earning miles. You’ll also increase your chances of obtaining discounts for food and drinks while flying or earning access to a coveted airport lounge. Don’t let the savings stop there — sign up for the rewards programs at popular hotel chains while you’re at it.

Skip the checked bag. Save yourself some time and money by packing light. Many airlines charge for checked bags, so for shorter trips try to stick to a carry-on bag only. If you must check a bag, you may want to pay to check it online before you arrive at the airport, which some airlines give a discount for.

Be flexible on dates, departure cities. While those traveling for business might have a strict schedule to stick to, try to be flexible on your vacation dates. Leaving on a Tuesday may not seem as fitting as heading out of office on a Friday, but chances are, your flight will be cheaper. And it may save you money by flying in and out of an airport that’s farther out from where you normally fly. For example, fares from San Antonio might be cheaper than from Austin, Texas, and San Antonio is just a little more than an hour away from Austin. Or, if flying internationally, flights in and out of Dallas or Houston may be considerably more affordable.

Methodology

In order to rank the best places to shop for flights researchers looked at Bureau of Transportation data from the third quarter of 2019. Specifically, researchers compared the average fare on the lowest cost carrier to the average fare on the carrier with the most flights for every route. We then found the percent difference between those two figures to find how much people can save on each route by shopping around. We ranked the routes according to this figure. Data measured reflects round-trip flights.

Jacqueline DeMarco is a writer and editor based in Southern California. She has written on everything from finance to travel for publications including The Everygirl, Apartment Therapy, and LearnVest, among others. She shares all of her work on her personal website jacquelinedemarco.com

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).