4 Ways to Save on Plane Tickets This Summer, According to the Cheap Flights Expert

Here's why flights are so expensive right now, and what you can do about it.

Woman’s hands holding passports & boarding passes while waiting at the check-in counter in the airport
PHOTO: TANG MING TUNG/GETTY IMAGES

Airline sticker shock is hitting would-be travelers hard this season. But, according to Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights and author of "Take More Vacations," there are a few reasons why people shouldn't find the sky-high pricing all that surprising.

"You hear travel is still down 10, 15%, but because the number of planes is down even more, demand is high. Flights are actually more full today than they were pre-pandemic," he told Travel + Leisure. "It's not just your imagination. It's literally right there in the statistics that there are fewer empty seats today than there were three years ago."

According to Keyes, there are three primary reasons flights feel so expensive. First, travel is on the rebound — and demand is higher than anyone expected.

"It came back far quicker than analysts, airlines, and basically anybody expected," he said. "Leisure travel is fully rebounded to where it was pre-pandemic. Folks are excited and eager to take those vacations they might not have felt comfortable or able to take over the past couple of years."

Next, supply hasn't rebounded quite as quickly.

"You've got full demand, but the actual supply of flights [is] still down between 15 to 20% compared to pre-pandemic," Keyes explained. "The reason why is that airlines don't have enough pilots, they don't have enough planes, and they don't have enough ground crew."

And the third factor, which is important, though, as Keyes noted, not nearly as impactful as the first two, is "the high cost of oil." He added, "jet fuel is the number two expense at every airline."

There are, however, still a few ways to save on air travel, which Keyes shared with us. You just may have to be more flexible than you wanted.

Flip how you plan a trip

"The most important piece of advice I can give you is that if cheap flights are a priority, take the way you search for flights and flip it on its head," Keyes told T+L.

Travelers typically search for flights in a three-step process. Step one, they decide where they want to go. Step two, they decide when they want to go. And step three, they look at flight cost, which makes price the lowest priority. And that's when you usually end up with expensive flights.

"If you really are hoping to get cheap flights, don't make [price] the last priority. Make [it] the top priority," he said. "Keep that same three-step process and reverse it." Keyes suggested first looking for cheap flights out of your home airport, then choosing a destination based on flight price, and finally, finding dates where the "cheap airfare works for your schedule."

Hold off until the fall

"Flights are so expensive right now because so many people are searching for flights in two of the worst ways possible," Keyes said. "They're searching for flights at one of the most expensive times of year to travel, which is the summer. And they're searching for flights at one of the most expensive times to buy, which is last minute."

If you want to travel, but don't need to travel right this second, Keyes suggests holding off until fall, when fares are historically less expensive. (Don't forget, most of the summer travel benefits still exist in September — without the astronomical prices.) Keyes gave the following example on June 13: "If you were to search right now for flights from New York city to Oslo, July 22 through 29 was $1,230 round trip, but September 22 through 29 [costs] $237. What I like to say is that cheap flights aren't gone forever. They're just gone for this summer."

Think about the 'Goldilocks booking zone'

Travel is best — and potentially cheapest — if you can plan ahead. According to Keyes, it comes down to booking within the 'Goldilocks zone,' which is two to eight months out for international travel and one to three months for domestic. And if you're looking to fly over the holidays, add a few months for good measure.

"We're not seeing any cheap flights for summer because those summer cheap flights were available in February," Keyes said. "If you think about the Goldilocks window for the fall, we are now in it. And if you think about Goldilocks window for the winter holiday flights, we are in it right now."

Don't forget to search one-way flights

For a domestic travel tip, Keyes said it's a good idea to also search for two one-way tickets, rather than one round-trip ticket. That's because you could find a cheaper ticket for either direction on different airlines. Sadly, Keyes said, this same trick rarely works for international flights, noting "the one-way fare is actually sometimes as expensive as a round-trip flight." Of course, you can always sign up for fare alerts on websites like Google, and sign up for Keyes' newsletter, which delivers cheap flight information to your inbox so you can book as soon as the prices are right.