Finding the Best International Airfare

I wrote this for another site I manage, but seeing as a lot of my visitors are international travelers, I thought it might be useful to post it here too. While the following article was written for Americans traveling to Turkey, the tips are pretty universal, and can be used when booking international airfare anywhere (I used the same strategies, for example, when I was living in China).

Flying long distances doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, distance doesn’t determine the price.  If you shop around and use a few tricks, your flights from the states to Turkey can be less expensive than a flight within the US.

Let’s say you want to fly to Turkey in Spring or Fall, hitting the beaches while the water’s warm, but avoiding peak tourism season. We found a roundtrip ticket with one stop for as low at $549. Here’s what you can do to find the best flight prices (and save your money for sailing and seafood):

ITA Website

Tip No. 1Use ITA Matrix

ITA Matrix was originally created by computer scientists at MIT and was later bought out by Google.  It scans almost every available flight to find you the best deal.  You can set numerous parameters, such as flight time, specific dates or date ranges, and flight preferences (nonstop, one stop, multiple stops; multi-city; no overnights).  ITA is actually used by other discount booking websites such as Kayak – and thus it is much faster more comprehensive, and often delivers up cheaper flights.  You can find a much more detailed introduction to ITA here.  There are, however, two drawback to ITA: that tickets cannot be purchased directly – you must search the flight you found on Google Flights, call Priceline, call the airline company or use Hipmunk (how to do that here and here); and the ITA database does not always include minor or in-country air companies.  It will not show results for Turkey’s budged airline, Pegasus Airlines.  Thus, if you want to book cheap tickets within Turkey, you may want to go directly to the Pegasus website.  Also, the JFK-IST flight is almost always a few dollars cheaper on Google Flights.

Use HipMunk to Book ITA Flights

There are also free app versions of ITA (though with fewer options than the full site) available for google play and apple.

To give an example of how ITA works, we ran the the same flights (JFK-Istanbul and Chicago O’Hare-IST) Sep 1st-24th through ITA, Google Flights, Kayak, and Turkish Airlines. The lowest prices listed were as follows:

JFK-IST ITA: $630*                          ORD – IST ITA: $719

             Google: $619                                     Google: $749

             Turkish Airlines: $833                        Turkish Airlines: $883

             Kayak: $730                                        Kayak: $806

 Hipmunk w/o ITA: $626                       Hipmunk w/o ITA: $826

*Please note that all prices quoted here are purely for reference, and may change

Tip No. 2: Be Flexible with Your Flight Times & Dates

With ITA Matrix you can select flexible dates (ex. April 30 +- 2 days) or a range, called a “calender of low fares” (ex: leave April 15 to one month later, stay 9-13 days).  The more flexible you can be with your travel dates, the more likely you are to hit upon times lower in demand (and thus far less expensive).

Examples:

April 30-May 10: $807

April 30-May 10+- 2 days: $679

Departing between April 15 and May 15, staying for 9-14 days: $594

The cheapest JFK-IST flights seem to be in early April and October, with roundtrip tickets bottoming out around $549, and one-way tickets at $321.

Tip No. 3: Book In Advance If Traveling During Peak Season

It’s generally recommended that you book 5 weeks-100 days out when traveling internationally.  As seats are filled, prices go up.

Tip No. 4: Fly Out of Major Hubs/Experiment with Different City Options

Flying out of some US cities is far more expensive than flying out of other cities.  Generally, it is cheapest to fly out of JFK on the East Coast and Chicago O’Hare in the Midwest. If you can, visit friends or take the train to a major hub airport.  Do know that if you book a separate flight on a different airline to a hub airport, and your first flight is delayed enough that you miss the second leg of your journey, the airline most likely will not reschedule your flight without fines.  Thus it is recommended that you allow sufficient time between flights, or take a mode of transportation that is not frequently subject to delays.

Second, consider just booking a flight from a major US hub to Istanbul.  If you have the time, spend a day resting, recovering from jetlag, and exploring in Istanbul, and then either take a cheap domestic flight (like Pegasus) or the bus to your final destination.  Buses in Turkey are quite comfortable, directly connect most cities, and will most often take you to the city center (whereas the airport may be a 50km trip from town).

While the April 19-29 JFK-IST ticket is $594, the JFK-Antalya fare is $741, and JFK-Dalaman is $1,038. For comparisson, a round-trip Pegasus IST-Antalya flight is $46 including taxes, and IST-Dalaman is $55.

Tip No. 5: Change Your Sales City

A longer article explaining this trick can be found here. Basically, you may see lower prices if you change your sales city to Istanbul or another in-country location and make sure the currency is “Default (Currency of the Sales City)”.  If you change your sales city to IST, but keep the sales currency in USD you will see the same price as quoted for a US Sales City. This trick seem to especially work when booking flights earlier in advance. The results will show in Turkish Lira (YTL), but you can easily convert the amount and compare prices. If using the app, click “more options” to change your Sales City.

Example with JFK-IST flights:

USD April 19-29  $594      June 1-10: $730        Sep 1-24: $719

YTL April 19-29 1,521 ($587)  June 1-10: 1,868 ($729.40)     Sep 1-24: 1.613 ($629.83)

Before buying tickets in a different currency, however, check with your bank to see if they will charge you for converting money from USD.

Tip No. 6: Buy Two Separate One-Way Tickets

Planning to stay for a while and not sure when you’re going to return? Instead of buying a roundtrip ticket and then changing your flight back (and incurring hefty airline fees), just buy a one-way ticket.  When you decide when you want to fly back, book your return ticket using the methods above, or (after checking ITA prices) with a local travel agent.  In-country travel agents sometimes have deals with the major airlines and are able to find you fares that are even cheaper than those listed online. However, do first compare one-way and round-trip ticket prices.  For some airlines, the cost to move a return ticket date is significantly cheaper than buying two separate tickets.

And Always Remember: Ask Airlines and Agents to Match Prices

As you probably noticed above, prices can be substantially different between different websites. Found a lower price on ITA, but don’t feel comfortable using HipMunk? If there is a price discrepancy, call the airline (or Priceline or your preferred travel agency) and ask if they can match the price.  Oftentimes they will, especially if they value you as a return customer.

Have any other tips or tricks? Please share in the comments section below!

Please keep in mind that the above figures (found on March 24th and 25th, 2015) are used to provide examples, and are not meant to be taken as definitive prices.  Airline prices are always subject to change; experiment with different dates, sales cities, and websites to find the best fare. 

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