If you’ve tried to book a flight lately, you might have noticed a couple of things: The prices are looking high, and the options are looking limited.
This isn’t particularly surprising. On Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration says, it screened 2,167,380 passengers at airport security checkpoints, the highest volume since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, airlines have not yet resumed offering as many flights as they did pre-pandemic, after making schedule reductions over the past 15 months. The result is higher demand and lower supply ― ergo, expensive tickets.
“As of June 2021, it seems flights have rebounded back to their pre-pandemic pricing,” said Rocky Trifari, travel blogger at The Rocky Safari. “In some cases, I’m noticing flight costs are even higher than they were during the summer of 2019. I believe prices are especially expensive at the moment because of all the last-minute travelers who are looking to take advantage of the summer to travel now that many domestic and even international destinations have reopened.”
Although air travel is generally pricier now compared to a year ago, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a deal. Below, Trifari and other experts share their advice for securing cheap flights.
Prioritize cost over date and destination.
“To book cheap flights, you must make cheap flights a priority,” said Darci Valiente, a senior member operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights.
“All too often when people think about booking a vacation, they first sit down and think about where and when they want to go,” she explained. “Imagine you and some friends are planning to take a trip together and it is decided, ‘Let’s go to Greece for the last two weeks of August.’ As a result, when you go to book your flight, you’ll likely end up paying $1,200 round-trip for one ticket to Athens for your dates.”
It’s common to prioritize destination and dates over cost, particularly for families limited by school holiday schedules. But if you’re able to take another approach, Valiente advises beginning your search by asking, for example, “Where are there cheap flights to out of our airport?” and “Are there any destinations that are cheap in August?”
“In [this] scenario, you might find that there are $480 roundtrip fares to Rome available for the first two weeks of August,” she said. “You and your friends book these tickets instead, have a great time in Italy, and save $720 per person on airfare.”
Use flight search engines.
“If you’re looking to find affordable flights, you should always use a source that aggregates flights from numerous airlines so you can compare the rates,” Trifari said.
This can be useful for search purposes even if you intend to book through the official carrier ― though you may change your mind.
“You may find certain websites can shave a bit off from the bottom price, scoring you an even better deal than had you booked directly through an airline’s own website,” Trifari said.
In addition to comparison-based search engines, there are other tools aimed at helping travelers find affordable options.
If you’re willing to give up “some of the comforts of travel such as taking direct flights, you can use booking tools like Skiplagged to discover connecting flights that have layovers to secure a better deal,” Trifari suggested. “The trade-off is that it will take you longer to arrive at your destination, since you may have to stop at one or two other airports along the way.”
Set up alerts.
Not everyone has the time to check different websites for flight deals every day, and even if you do, sometimes limited offers appear and disappear quickly. That’s why it’s helpful to set up alerts with your platform of choice, so you receive an email or push notification when prices fall.
“Setting up price alerts will ensure you’re the first to know as prices drop with any additional discounts or added supply,” said Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert for Skyscanner. “You can mark a flight you’re interested in, and Skyscanner will email you whenever the price goes up or down.”
Valiente similarly plugged Scott’s Cheap Flights as a way to get email alerts when bargains pop up. Google Flights, Kayak and other travel websites also offer fare-change notification features.
Be flexible with airlines.
“If you are trying to find a good deal, be flexible with alternative dates, airports, and airlines,” Kelly said. “Consider flying out and in on different dates, in and out of different airports, and flying on a different airline that you might not typically fly.”
Flexibility can involve booking with airlines you don’t usually fly, or even combining carriers within the same trip.
“It’s not just a summer fashion trend. Mix-and-matching the airlines you choose to fly with can seriously cut costs,” Crossey said. “Fares don’t have to be booked as returns. Look at flying out with one airline and back with another to save money.”
He noted that Skyscanner has tools that calculate the cheapest month to travel to certain destinations, and lets users search within a given month to find and identify the most affordable dates.
“Flight prices are all based on supply and demand. Because some dates are more popular than others, prices will vary,” he said. “Consider traveling a day before or a day after your original departure dates. Flying on less popular days of the week is always cheaper.”
If carrier flexibility isn’t giving you great options, it may be time to dip into the miles you’ve accumulated from previous airline loyalty. You might also have vouchers from flights you had to cancel due to the pandemic, or even credit card reward points.
“If you’re not still finding any deals, consider using a travel voucher or see the what the flight would cost in points vs. cash,” Kelly said. “Remember ― never pay more in points than you would in cash!”
Don’t ignore less popular places.
Of course, many destinations are popular ― and therefore expensive ― for a reason: They’re wonderful to visit. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only places where you can have a great vacation.
Ask the seasoned travelers in your life to share their favorite under-the-radar destinations. Search for lists predicting future hot spots, follow travel bloggers’ recommendations or even spin a globe and see where your finger lands.
“Generally speaking, the best deals out there are to places where travel is now open, but consumer demand doesn’t match the number of unfilled airplane seats,” Valiente said. “Inversely, places that are open but have high demand means fewer unfilled seats on planes and higher fares.”
“The year 2020 saw new destinations rise in popularity as corridors shone a light on some surprising gems,” Crossey said. “Swapping your usual break in Cancun for Florida or California could be an unexpected delight.”
Be mindful of your fare options.
Try to be thorough when exploring your options and making comparisons. Sometimes the deals that seem the most affordable involve hidden fees or an inflexibility that may end up costing more in the long run.
“Booking basic economy fares or ultra low cost airlines might be more expensive than a regular fare when you factor in fees, and also that basic economy tickets no longer get free changes,” Kelly said. “Cheap can be expensive!”
Similarly, you might find a rare opportunity to fly business class without having to splurge. A couple of months ago, Valiente was able to snag business class tickets to Athens this summer for the same price an economy ticket is now going for.
“While we have seen economy fares stabilize in the last couple of months, business and first class fares remain much lower than normal,” Valiente said. “This is largely due to the lack of company-paid trips and in-person business meetings. If you are looking to splurge or normally upgrade to regular economy, be sure to check the cost of non-economy fares as well. The price may be closer to the economy than you might think.”
Crossey emphasized the importance of flexibility with change policies, especially since we’re still living through a pandemic.
“In the past, being flexible with travel might have meant flying at anti-social times to get a good price. But now with a constantly changing travel landscape, it’s important to know what the change policies are on flight tickets and accommodation,” he explained. “Choosing these flexible options can sometimes be much cheaper than package deals and, of course, allows for a personally tailored trip.”
Pay attention to when you’re booking.
“For domestic flights, it is usually best to book one to three months in advance,” Trifari said. “For international trips, I find three to eight months is best.”
He also recommended avoiding Friday or Sunday flights if possible, since weekends are the busiest days for airlines, and prices tend to rise with the demand.
If you know you’ll be traveling during a period of high demand (like Christmas and New Year’s), start searching sooner. The key is to be ready to pounce, because good deals often don’t last.
“Airfare is highly volatile and can change minute to minute. The price today is not necessarily the price tomorrow,” Valiente said. “To get the best deals, start by looking at tickets several months out and monitor what the average fare to your destination tends to be. From there, decide a number you are comfortable paying and book once that number pops up. Could the price drop even lower? It could ― but it could also go much, much higher.”
She noted that most airlines offer full refunds for cancellations within 24 hours of booking through their websites, so you should be able to snag those tickets and then use that day to research if you can make the trip work.
Valiente also suggested “beating the rush” by booking a trip to an in-demand location that hasn’t yet announced its intention to reopen to travelers. Many airlines are still waiving change fees on economy tickets, so you can always delay your trip if the destination is still mostly closed as your travel dates approach.
“If the destination you want to visit is already opened, look to see if there are any last-minute deals,” she said. “In normal times, last-minute travel is quite inflated. However, without business travelers in the air (with companies who will pay whatever the cost is), there have been more last-minute deals than usual this past year. We don’t expect this trend to last.”
Additionally, there’s some debate about whether searching for flights on booking websites indicates higher demand, and thus pushes up prices (or if those sites might specifically show you a higher price due to your perceived purchasing intent). If you’re concerned about this, consider using incognito mode as you browse, or borrowing someone else’s device.
Promising review: “The raft is really bright and pretty and a lot bigger than I thought it would be. It has been floating in my friend’s pool for about a month now in the central Florida sun and it is holding up very well. All of the other rafts they received at the same time are faded but the peacock is still very bright. It has been jumped on by children and adults so it must be decent quality plastic.” — Brian Richardson
There are multiple ways to float around relaxing in this water hammock, a favorite of several HuffPost staffers.
Promising review: “LOVE these floats!!! Purchased two colors. I was looking for something perfect for drifting around a lazy river (which we did around 100 times over the past week of vacation! LOL) and these fit the bill. They are very easy to use, incredibly versatile and really well made! They did their job and did it well. Fantastic price for a fantastic product! My parents loved them so much that they’ve already purchased their own for our vacation NEXT YEAR!!! We left a day earlier than the rest of the family, but my parents begged us to leave these behind for their use. FYI, I’m 240 and 5’9″, my husband and father are 280 and 6′. These held all of us up in the water. Used these as a reclining float, a saddle style float, and a hammock style float. Loved them all!” — Kendall B.
It’s a huge, toothy dinosaur that’s $31.99. What’s not to love?
Promising review: “I am not one to write reviews however when something impresses me I have to mention it. This pool float has been inflated and floating on our pool for 2 months straight, the kids abuse it non stop, wind has blown it out of the pool a couple times but it stays inflated and has yet to spring a leak. At our house that is very impressive!!! Its quite large, our 10 and 7 year old usually are on it together no problem. Great buy!!” — Chad Blythe
What’s a vacation by the water without a nice chilled drink by your side? Have your pool time and cocktail hour, too, with these adorable floating cup holders.
Promising review: “Wow, just wow. By far my greatest Amazon purchase to date. These $10 floats held my $12 Moscow mule like a champ. No spilling, just floating. The 3 pack made it easy for my family to join me in my flamingo float coolness except that my selfish 5 yr old wanted them all to herself. Once I finally gave in I noticed that even a crazy splashy insane child was able to keep her drink afloat (just a water) in this flamingo! I plan to buy these for everyone I know that has a pool and you should too! Also as a bonus – these are perfect for holding your drink steady on your pool chair or next to it so you don’t accidentally knock it over with your poolside drunkenness! Seriously — buy these.” — absolutkeg
Can you make it 8 seconds on a wild wet steer? Fill your vacation with hilarious fun and hysterical spills with one of these inflatable bulls. Choose between a realistically-printed rodeo ring from Intex or a barrel-style steer from Banzai.
Promising review for Intex: “I bought this for an annual lake trip I take with my old college roommates. Many came but only few conquered the beast. Success rates radically vary based upon alcohol consumption. It survived multiple double decker waterslide mount attempts so it’s durable.” — Amazon customer
Don’t have the storage space or a car rigged to transport kayaks? The Explorer K2 from Intex inflates in minutes with the included air pump. It comes with a carrying bag and two aluminum paddles and is designed for use in lakes and gentle rivers.
Promising review: “I love this kayak! You can go swimming in the middle of the lake. Re-entering is easy and it won’t flip. When you remove both seats 2 people can comfortably sit on the inflated floor facing each other and enjoy lazy afternoon on the water. You can also buy a kayak anchor and enjoy sunshine without a drift.” — Sceptic Jim
OK, it’s not a machine. But if you’re just drifting down a river or floating on the lake, the Intex River Run series is the BMW of tubes. This has a mesh bottom, handles, water bottle holders, a back rest and a grab rope with a snap device you can use to attach two or more together.
Promising review: “We LOVE these tubes! Super fast shipping. My husband is 6’5, I’m 5’3. Both fit very comfortably in tubes. He’d never been tubing, and I took him on a quick 6 hour float to ‘get his feet wet.’ I was worried his back would be sore, but he said he was comfortable the entire time. Im pretty sure he snuck in a nap at some point. At my height, getting out in the river waters was a bit of a challenge, but I’d mastered it quickly. Bumped into quite a few rocks, but had no problems with the material holding up. We will certainly be getting a LOT of use out of these. Very highly recommend.” — Kayakchick76
It would be an actual crime if we did not tell you there’s also a two-person version of the tube above with all the same features plus A BUILT-IN COOLER.
Promising review: “The dual tube design was very comfortable, on the picture doesn’t show but it has a space compartment in front of the cooler excellent to store cameras and a waterproof speaker to jam down the river; the cooler is a good idea although the ice melted pretty fast, the drain hole was a great feature, but on the bright side we used the cooler after draining the water to store our cellphones and shoes along with a few bottles/cans of choice to keep it dry. Total time used was 5 hours down the river. Kept the air pressure well, great quality product 5 stars. — JPK2017
Little ones get to be in the pool with the big kids with this floating activity center that comes with its very own SPF 50 sun shade. Each tentacle of the inflatable octopus holds a toy, including a squeaker fish, stacking rings, fish teether and soft touch star.
Promising review: “Amazing!!! Using it for my 4-month-old. He’s always been super strong and has been sitting on his own for a minute or two at a time. Before we used it in the pool we sat him on top of the seat area and he loved it! He could balance perfectly with the support and play with the toys. In the pool he was more leaned back but could also lean forward to play with the toys. The puffer fish squeaks and they all float. The shader was amazing and snaps into place. He also took a nap on it outside the pool. Perfect!!” — Amazon customer
This giant raft has a built-in cooler, six cup holders, an anchor, backrests, two boarding platforms and space for seven of your nearest and dearest. What more could you possibly want? (If the answer is “a sunshade,” check out this option.)
Promising review: “Where to begin….we splashed, we chilled, we took a charcuterie board into the middle of Lake Anna… The lakefront houses surrounding us were full of people who were straight jelly at the amount of laughs being had during our splash and chill and meat and cheese sesh. Haters will say it’s fake. To those haters we will tell them you can splash but YOU CAN’T CHILL as our captain literally kicks them overboard. This was purchased for a bachelor party weekend and with a built in cooler full of Bud Light seltzer it was worth every penny paid.” — Elizabeth Regnitz
Soft cool-weave fabric is the standout for this buoyant lounge. You’ll love the headrest, width and cup holders, too.
Promising review: “Opened today, inflated and used for 2 hours in a river. It was awesome! I’m 6’2” 250 lbs and it held me easily! And it’s actually really comfortable. Laying all the way back it felt like my recliner at home. It’s a water hammock, so the bottom is mesh and let’s the water through. Sitting down on it at first feels like your going to sink, but once you lay flat, it holds you up perfectly. The headrest is the best part! I highly recommend this. I’m ordering a second one!” — Charles
Remember when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union rode the banana boat? This is just like that, except it’s a hot dog and you’re not famous.
You will, however, need a boat.
Promising review: “This thing held up to a 75 mph supercharged jet ski and let me tell you the faces of my brothers was priceless. Then we threw about 6 kids on this thing and changed their lives to where they will require thrill seeking at level 10 for the rest of their lives. I’ve never seen such a glorious sight at 75 mph. This thing just takes a lickin and keeps on… uh… wienering!” — Kevin H.
Stuck at the shore without a “real” boat for fishing or exploring? This inflatable version is so heavy-duty in super-tough PVC that you can even buy an optional motor mount and take things to the next level. As is, it comes with rotating oar locks (two aluminum oars included), fishing rod holders and a plastic slatted floor and inflatable reinforced keel for stability. Best of all, when you’re done, you can just deflate this boat, roll up the floor and pack it all in your trunk for next time.
If only the most stylish inflatable pool will do, look no further than Mylle’s black and white grid print. It comes in other designs, too, but a classic is a classic. Each one is 65″ in diameter, big enough for two adults, and comes in a coordinating and reusable vinyl envelope.
Sometimes when you’re at the lake with the family you need a few moments alone. Simply paddle away from them in this inflatable rowboat to grab a few moments of solitude and never spill the secret that it’s actually built for two.
Promising review: “The Explorer 200 demonstrates superior performance as an inflatable watercraft far beyond the walls of the suburban above ground pool for which it was designed. This so called ‘toy’ valiantly charged through the choppy waters of Lake Powell, effortlessly deflecting plates of ice with its seemingly impenetrable rubber hull as I explored a vast network of narrow sandstone canyons. Some may call it the ‘poor man’s packraft’, but I strongly disagree, as any man fortunate enough to call an Explorer 200 his own is a rich man indeed.” — Peter Brandon
Provide HOURS of fun with this floating pad made of closed cell foam. A tear-stop middle layer makes this mat extra durable, and a bungee tether allows you to anchor it in place. When you’re done, just roll it up with the included Velcro straps.
Promising review: “The grandchildren and neighbors’ children have had a great time with this mat all summer. Once is is in the water they do not want to come out. The children range in age from 3 to 14, with the parents getting in the act occasionally. They run, jump, flop, do cartwheels and flips, play king of the mat, etc. Always action except when they slow down a bit to catch a breath. This has clearly been the hit of the summer and given the looks as the boats swing by, we expect to see a few more on the lake this summer and next. We use a small mushroom anchor with it which works fine. In addition, I run a line from the anchor to the shore so if I don’t want to get wet at the end of the day when it is time to bring it in I can simply pull it in with that line. One of the best parts is no inflation necessary. Simply unroll it; then roll it back up when finished. Using two to roll it does make it easier; I haven’t tried rolling it up alone. The Rubber Dockie 18×6-Feet Floating Mat great fun!!” — John
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