When it comes to saving on airline travel, most of the “hacks” we read about involve relatively common ideas, such as accumulating airline miles via credit card offers or using travel apps to find the best fares.
If you’re looking for real hacks, however – the sort that airlines prefer you’d not know, then read on.
But please don’t tell everyone about them – we’d like to continue benefiting from these loopholes before the airlines shut them down.
Take Advantage of the Hub & Spoke System for Killer Low Fares
Most major carriers function on a hub and spoke system, with “hub” cities serving as the origination point for many non-stop flights, and the “spoke” cities connecting through them.
For example, United Airlines uses (among others) Houston, Chicago, Newark, Cleveland as its hubs and connects most flights through them.
So, you can’t fly San Antonio to Chicago non-stop; you’ll probably need to connect in Houston if you’re flying United.
This means the airlines can dramatically jack-up fares in hub cities, since they’re busy flight connection points.
If I want to fly non-stop to Houston on United, I’ll pay almost twice as much as I would if I took a flight with connections.
A flight to nearby College Station or Austin, TX would cost hundreds of dollars less even though I have to connect in Houston, anyhow.
It makes little sense, except that United has a stranglehold on its Houston hub.
Don’t despair, however – there’s a way to get to a hub city on the cheap.
Let’s say you want to fly from St. Louis to Atlanta, GA non-stop, but notice fares are expensive (that shouldn’t be a surprise – Atlanta is a Delta hub).
Consider buying a flight to a nearby city that connects in Atlanta via Delta, instead. For example, try pricing flights to Savannah or Augusta, GA.
These flights will be routed non-stop on Delta from St. Louis to their Atlanta hub non-stop, which means you can just disembark in Atlanta and ignore the second segment to Savannah!
Bam! You’ve just saved hundreds of dollars and get to fly non-stop.
Other hub cities include NY-JFK for Delta; Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles for American; and Charlotte and Phoenix for US Airways.
If you’re flying to any of these (or Houston, Newark, SFO and Cleveland as mentioned in the United example), try pricing tickets to nearby cities, instead.
Such examples include a United flight to Providence connecting in Newark (I recently saved $250 on a ticket to NYC this way), or a flight to Santa Barbara on American connecting in LAX (I’ve gotten countless cheap tickets to LA this way).
A couple of caveats: Buy your ticket one-way. This doesn’t work with round-trip fares, since the airline will cancel your ticket if you don’t show for the second segment.
Also, you can only travel with carry-ons, otherwise you risk your bag being sent to the “final” second-segment destination.
If you’re willing to accommodate one-way travel with carry-on luggage, however, it’s the surest way to very deep discounts.
Use Same-Day Flight Changes for Cheap Seats
You really want a 7 PM flight, but the 1 PM is $200 cheaper. Do you pony up the extra cash for the more desirable time, or take the cheaper, less desirable flight time?
The answer involves a little simple math and homework.
First, it’s important to know that many airlines will enable you to make same-day flight changes for about $50. (Some, such as Southwest, don’t charge anything at all.) Check your airline’s policy on this.
Next, check online to see how many seats are available on the more expensive flight you’d really like.
If it appears a good number of seats are available, consider buying the cheaper fare – but then changing it to the more desirable one the day of the flight.
For example, I wanted to buy a flight home for Sunday evening that would cost $400. The Sunday morning flight, on the other hand, cost only $200.
The simple solution would be to buy the cheaper, early flight, and then change to the flight I really want the day of travel.
I spent $200 by buying the cheaper early flight, and shelled out an extra $50 for the flight change.
That totals $250 – or a full $150 less than I would’ve paid if I just bought the evening flight outright!
The catch: You MUST change your flight prior to your original departure time; if not, your ticket may be cancelled.
Also, seats must be available on your desired flight, so check seat maps often.
Janet Al-Saad is the founder of personal finance website FiveTenTwentyClub.com, which helps you learn to reach your financial goals on less.