How To Save On Travel In 2023, According To A Flight Deals Expert

Unpredictable airfare may make booking travel tricky, but you don’t have to resign yourself to playing a guessing game about how much you’ll eventually pay for that ticket.

CNBC Select spoke with Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at flight deal subscription service Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) to learn how he avoids canceled trips and finds the best travel deals.

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Time your booking right

An essential rule for finding a low airfare price is knowing when to look for it.

Keyes uses what he calls “the Goldilocks window” — a period of time when cheap fares are most likely to pop up for domestic and international flights.

“For domestic flights, if you’re talking peak season, it’s about three to seven months in advance,” he says. “For international flights — [it’s] four to 10 months.”

If you’re traveling during an off-peak season, you’re going to want to look at airfares one to three months in advance for domestic flights, and two to eight months ahead of the flight for international trips.

How this works in the real world

Keyes shares a personal example of how timing when you book saves money. His friend is getting married in Las Vegas at the end of March. For months, Keyes was watching a particular fare from Portland that consistently stayed at $407. Then, at the end of December last year, he began seeing the price quickly decrease. Finally, in mid-January, about two months before the trip, the fare dropped to $79. At this point, he booked the ticket, saving a whopping $328 — or almost 81{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} of the price he’d originally seen.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Information about the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

  • Rewards

    5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, 2X miles per dollar on every other purchase

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    N/A for purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

    0{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} at the regular transfer APR

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Follow the 21-day rule

As a corollary to the above rule on timing, make sure you don’t wait too long before booking that flight you’ve been eying.

According to Keyes, airfares contain an advance purchase requirement in the fine print. It states that you must purchase the ticket 21 days prior to departure to get the best fare.

“On day 20, that previously cheapest flight is no longer available and the new cheapest fare is now $100 or $200 more expensive,” Keyes says. To avoid losing out on the best price, you should set a reminder 21 days in advance before your planned flight as your absolute deadline for buying a ticket.

For domestic travel, check one-way flights

Keyes also recommends checking one-way flights with different airlines before booking roundtrip tickets with the same one.

“There are times where one airline might have the cheapest outbound flight and a different airline might have the cheapest return flight,” he explains. “So you can just book a one-way outbound and a one-way return and not be paying an inflated price.”

Note that this tactic typically only works for domestic flights.

Use tactics to avoid cancellations and delays

Canceled or delayed flights can wreak havoc on your plans — and your wallet. You might have to pay for meals you didn’t budget for or even get an extra night at a hotel.

What’s worse, it’s hard to predict when such a situation will happen. In 2022, delays and cancellations became all too commonplace, suppressing pre-pandemic levels. There’s no saying whether 2023 will be any better.

While a canceled or delayed flight might not be something you can easily plan for, you can take steps to minimize the risk of it happening to you — or the consequences if it still does.

Here’s what Keyes suggests:

  • Book non-stop flights. When you have no layovers to worry about, you’re more likely to avoid serious disruptions. If your non-stop flight is late, you might just need to wait for an extra hour or two. But if you have a connecting flight, the delay might cause you to miss it. “And then all of a sudden, you’re reliant on being rebooked,” Keyes says. “But in some situations, it could be a day or two until the next available flight.”
  • Pick early morning flights. According to Keyes, early morning flights have a higher completion rate due to better flying conditions. Plus, airplanes awaiting early flights are parked at the airport overnight, waiting and ready to go.
  • Avoid checking a bag. A delay or cancellation can be much easier to deal with if you don’t have checked luggage. “If you show up at your connecting flight and it gets canceled and they need to accommodate you, it’s just much simpler if they don’t have to also try to find your bag in the belly of one plane and switch it to another plane,” Keyes says. On top of that, you’ll avoid becoming an unfortunate hero of the all-too-common story where your bag gets lost or leaves for your destination without you.
  • Call the airline’s international office. In case your trip does get interrupted, you’ll want to have it rebooked as soon as possible to prevent further disruptions. Chances are, standing in line at the airport with fellow travelers will take a while, as well as trying to get through to the airline’s customer service in the U.S. “Basically, all airlines have offices all around the world,” Keyes says. “You can call any one of those offices and get through to an agent much quicker, but that agent can help rebook you just the same.”

If the worst-case scenario happens and you end up stuck because of a delayed or canceled flight, you can still get your money back for the possible meals or lodging you have to pay for. First, try to get in touch with the airline — depending on their policies, they might reimburse you. If that fails, check if your credit card offers trip delay or trip interruption insurance and get reimbursed through your issuer. For example, some of the cards that offer these perks include the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, The Platinum Card® from American Express and Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

Information about the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

  • Rewards

    10X miles on hotels and rental cars, 5X miles on flights when booked via Capital One Travel; unlimited 2X miles on all other eligible purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    21.24{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} – 28.24{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} variable APR

  • Balance transfer fee

    0{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} at the regular transfer APR

  • Foreign transaction fees

  • Credit needed

The Platinum Card® from American Express

On the American Express secure site

  • Rewards

    Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year, 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel, 1X points on all other eligible purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit Needed

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

  • Rewards

    Earn 5X total points on flights and 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3X points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases plus, 10X points on Lyft rides through March 2025

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Only get a travel card if you’re responsible with credit

Keyes identifies as a savvy user of travel credit cards, and says he enjoys being able to score free travel and lodging through his card’s rewards. At the same time, he doesn’t think a travel card is right for everyone.

“You need to have decent credit,” he says. “You need to be able to handle credit responsibly, treating a credit card like a debit card, not spending money you don’t have and paying off your balance every month. [Otherwise] interest is going to far outweigh any benefits you’ll get from points or miles.”

If you haven’t gotten into tracking points and miles yet, Keyes suggests getting one card, earning the welcome bonus and then spending it on free travel. After that, you can decide for yourself if you’ve enjoyed it and if that’s something you want to continue to do.

“If you do one card, open it up, put most of your spending on it, that’s going to get you one free flight every year,” he says. “And for a lot of people, that’s plenty.”

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a solid travel credit card for anyone looking for a generous sign-up bonus, handing out 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases during the first 3 months after opening your account.

The card also earns bonus points on spending categories like travel and dining. On top of that, you can boost your rewards’ value by redeeming for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal where your points are worth 25{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} more, or transferring them to one of Chase’s airline and hotel partners. Finally, you can take advantage of powerful travel and purchase protections, a $50 annual hotel credit when booking through Chase, and an anniversary bonus equal to 10{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} of your total purchases made the previous year.

Note, however, that the card charges a $95 annual fee, so you’ll have to make sure you’re using the card enough to justify its cost. And while the Sapphire Preferred is a good travel card, it might not be the best first credit card since it requires good to excellent credit — think scores of 700 and above.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

  • Rewards

    $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining, 2X points on all other travel purchases, and 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    20.24{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} – 27.24{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 5{5a5867cc9cca71cf546db38f42fbf171004839e3542174405390d177276b4f49} of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Bottom line

Booking travel can be an expensive and frustrating experience. But if you stay proactive, time the booking right and pick the most reliable flights, you can avoid overpaying for airfare and minimize the chance of disruptions. Additionally, if you’re a responsible cardholder who enjoys strategizing to get the most out of your rewards, you can even score free travel every once in a while.

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For rates and fees of The Platinum® Card from American Express, click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

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