October 28, 2015 9:00 pm
Updated: October 28, 2015 10:33 pm

Tips on how to get the best airfare deal online

WATCH: If you're confused about all of those travel websites that promise the best prices, Anne Drewa has advice on how to really get the best deal.

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Winter vacation planning is in full swing for Canadians looking to get away over the holidays.

The internet is typically the first place would-be travellers turn to in search of a flight. According to Statistics Canada, the most-shopped item online is travel, with 58 per cent of Canadian web users booking their trips online.  But with dozens of travel sites and booking engines to choose from, it can be a challenge to find the best deal.

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Global News turned to travel expert, New York Times bestselling author, and blogger Matthew Kepnes, also known as “Nomadic Matt” in the travel industry, to share his tips on how to get the best deal online.

Not all search engines are equal

Before you buy, Kepnes says you’ll save big if you search multiple sites, because not “all search engines are created equal.”

“Everyone has their blind spots. Some search engines only search major carriers. Some focus on budget airlines, regional, and seasonal airlines. “

He says consumers should be aware of how the various search engines make money and what their relationship is with the airlines.

Kepnes says some travel search sites make money off a click to a third-party search engine, while others make money directly from the consumer booking on the search engine’s site.

So which airline booking sites offer the cheapest airfares? There is no magic answer, but Kepnes recommends the following websites:

1) Google Flights
2) Kayak
3) Skyscanner
4) Momondo

Join Airline Mailing lists

Getting an airfare deal is about being in the know and acting quickly, according to Kepnes.

When you join an airline mailing list, they will email those deals out, making its users one of the first to get notices on fare sales and last-minute deals.

“You’ll be first to see that cheap flight to Paris, London, Honolulu. “

Theflightdeal.com and holidaypirates.com are two websites on his list of favourites. He says it also pays to follow those websites on Twitter and Facebook to be instantly alerted to their deals on social media.

“Those websites spend the hours searching for cheap airfare so you don’t have to,” said Kepnes.

How cookies may impact the price

Cookies, small bits of data stored on your computer, could be used by travel websites and airlines to track your search history on a flight. Kepnes says there’s “no conclusive evidence” that this is happening but he adds “in the age of everybody tracking everything they are probably tracking you in some way.”

Searching through an incognito browser, which doesn’t allow cookies to track you, will put a stop to that. But in some cases, when the airlines know you are searching multiple websites for a flight they may offer you a discounted deal to get you to buy.

“That’s the cookies at work. They see you are browsing. They see you are interested. Based on your browsing history they might think you’re not going to buy so they’ll offer you a great deal.”

Shopping around, Kepnes says, “does pay off.”

Fly when no one else wants to fly

“There is not one specific time when flights are cheaper. It’s not so much when you book, it’s when you fly.”

Kepnes says to get the cheapest flight, you need to book when no one else wants to fly.

“Midweek flights tend be a little cheaper, [as well as] early morning flights and late night flights.”

If you are flying to a major hub such as London’s Heathrow Airport, flights arriving on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays tend to be higher because business travellers typically arrive to their destination on a Sunday or Monday for the following work week and generally leave on a Friday.

Kepnes says getting a great deal requires booking a flight on “those off-peak times of the week, hour of the day and the year.”

Be Flexible

Being flexible in “where you want to go” and “when you want to go” will impact the total price, according to Kepnes.

“If you have to leave on Monday you are stuck with the prices that happen on Monday. Maybe you can leave on Tuesday and you can get a cheaper deal by $100.”

24-hour rule

Airlines have a 24-hour rule that allows travellers to cancel their flight without a penalty. Kepnes says if you see a cheaper price for the exact flight you’ve purchased exactly 24 hours after, you can cancel without penalty, and buy the exact ticket again at a lower price.

How far in advance should you book?

If you book too far in advance, such as a year before, Kepnes says prices tend to be much higher because airlines don’t know about demand yet.

Alternatively, last minute deals, within 30 days, for example, also tend to be higher. Kepnes says airlines assume you are probably booking that last minute flight because you have to.

During peak season, Kepnes recommends booking four to five months in advance for a major international flight and three to four months for off-season. On a domestic flight, two months, he says is a good time.

Price Comparison: How we tested, what we found

Global News searched various websites to compare prices. For the experiment, we chose two popular winter holiday destinations, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and Honolulu, Hawaii at peak travel times–December 26-January 2 for two adults and two kids. Global News used Kayak, Expedia, Google Flights, Skyscanner, Air Canada’s website and WestJet’s website.

From Vancouver to Puerto Vallarta, the best deal was found on Kayak: $1720.96 for four travellers. The most expensive was found on Air Canada’s website with a grand total of $5,250, a difference in savings of $3,529.04. Kayak’s website gave a “hacker’s deal.” The company has trademarked the phrase, which are roundtrip fares pieced together from one-way flights on a number of airlines. Typically consumers are not able to purchase that on most booking sites.

For Vancouver to Honolulu, Google flights gave the cheapest deal $4,309.64, taxes included for the family of four. WestJet’s website provided the most expensive deal, $7,415.80 – a price difference of $3,106.16.

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