How to save 20% on airfare — if you don’t mind taking some risks

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There’s a surefire way to save money on airline tickets — but those savings may not be worth it for some travelers, depending on how they tolerate certain headaches.

The savings strategy probably comes as no surprise: booking a flight with one or more stops is usually cheaper than choosing a non-stop option. The average discount for this can be significant, around 20%, according to Google Flights data on domestic flights over the past five years.

According to Hopper, round-trip domestic flights cost an average of $293 in August. A 20% discount off this average fare is about $59.

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Google analysis calls willingness to stopover “one of your best bets for saving money when flying.”

“This is largely because there are simply more ways to get from point A to point B with one stopover,” said James Byers, group product manager for Google Flights.

“Reduce variables” to limit waiting times

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Travelers may feel the impulse or need to cut their travel budget as air fares and other travel expenses have become more expensive. The cost of flights, hotels and car rentals fell in July from a year earlier, but are still above pre-pandemic levels — by double-digit percentages in some cases, according to federal data.

Searches for “cheapest plane tickets” in the US increased 240% between April and August this year compared to the previous four-month period November 2021 to March 2022, according to Google.

But the savings travelers get from layovers come with trade-offs — Travelers may be feeling more acute as airlines continue to grapple with potential consumer annoyances like flight and baggage delays, according to travel experts.

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There’s the obvious time difference – it takes longer to travel with stops than without. However, trip delays and cancellations can have cascading effects affecting the remaining segments of your trip.

For one thing, you can miss a connecting flight if your first one is delayed. Even if you arrive on time for a connecting flight, your luggage may not arrive if the stopover is too short.

Of course, travelers may not have the option of choosing a non-stop flight, especially if they don’t live near a major airport. Those with the option (and the budget) to fly non-stop will find it well worth the extra money. Those who don’t have the option may be able to reduce the number of stops they make during a trip – perhaps one instead of two, for example.

“You want to reduce variables when traveling as much as possible,” says Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet.

‘Err on the side of more time, always’

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About 73% of flights arrived on time in June this year – down from the nearly 75% in June 2021, although they were about the same as the June 2019 pre-pandemic rate, according to the latest data from the Department of Transportation.

More flights were also canceled — 3.1% of flights in June 2022, which agency data shows is double the same period last year and up from 2.1% in 2019.

Airlines also mishandled a larger proportion of baggage from January to June 2022 than in previous years. More than 1.4 million bags – 0.63% of all bags – were mishandled during this period, up from 709,700 (0.44% of all bags) in 2021 and 1.5 million (0.61%) in 2019. Mishandled bags include those that are lost or delayed.

The queues are long and the airports are still understaffed, so don’t rush to the airport with 20 minutes to go.

Sarah Rathner

Travel Expert at NerdWallet

“Err on the side of more time, always,” said Rathner. “Lines are long and airports are still understaffed, so don’t rush into the airport with 20 minutes to go.”

For travelers who choose to fly with one or more stops, she recommends counting on US flights with stopovers of 90 minutes or more to have an adequate buffer.

Those with a layover can also eliminate the risk of lost or delayed baggage by packing lightly and carrying belongings onto the plane rather than checking them, she said.

5 more tips for cheaper air fares and travel

There are ways that travelers can reduce their cost of airline tickets – and of travel more broadly – aside from choosing a stopover. Some may disagree with popular belief.

  1. Be flexible when flying: According to Google’s analysis of historical data, you’ll get an average of 20% off a domestic flight departing on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday compared to a weekend departure. The discount is 12% when considering both international and US flights. Additionally, those who have the flexibility to travel between Labor Day and the year-end holidays during the off-season generally get discounts compared to peak travel times, Rathner said. According to Hopper, for example, domestic flight prices in September and October are down 37% compared to the peak summer season.
  2. And where you depart: Consider all nearby airports, not just the one closest to you. According to Phil Dengler, a travel expert at The Vacationer, it can be cheaper to drive to an airport further from home and fly in and out from there compared to your home airport.
  3. Shop early: Waiting for a specific day of the week to book a flight doesn’t offer much financial benefit — travelers have, on average, gotten a paltry 1.9% discount if they Google shopping on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday instead of the weekend. Buying in advance has a “much bigger impact” on costs than waiting for a Tuesday, Byers said. Domestic flights are cheapest about a month and a half before departure, but can vary by route, Google found.
  4. Set price alerts: Experts recommend using services that help consumers track cheap air fares and send price alerts to travelers. Examples include The Fare Deal Alert, The Flight Deal, Google Flights, KAYAK Price Alerts, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and Secret Flying, according to Rathner. “It can be useful to use existing technology to save you from yourself,” she said.
  5. Book your trip backwards: Flights are often the first thing people consider and book when planning a trip. But plane tickets may not be the most expensive component. Optimizing the price of a rental car by looking for the cheapest combination of days and then buying airline tickets that fit that itinerary can help save money on the entire trip, even if it means paying a little more on the airfare said Rathner.

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