Travelers can often save money if they adjust their travel dates to take advantage of the lowest possible fare between any two cities. And many travelers don't really care when they travel, just as long as they are able to see friends, family, or business associates cheaply.
Oddly, however, statistics show that most airfare buyers ignore flexible searches. That’s probably because the majority of travelers, such as those going on a cruise or attending a meeting or wedding, need to travel on set dates. But it’s also because many airfare buyers simply aren’t aware that flexible search options exist, or don’t appreciate the savings that can be achieved by being flexible.
When Airfarewatchdog.com is researching airfares, the staff always starts with a flexible travel date search to determine what the lowest fare in the market might be.
You can save hundreds of dollars simply by going a day or two earlier or later than you originally planned, or by postponing your trip for a month or two: Aunt Freda probably will be just as happy to see you in May as in March.
Here are your options when performing a flexible fare search:
Travelocity's flexible date search shows you fares up to 330 days ahead, with the exception of fares on Southwest, Allegiant, USA 3000, and a few other airlines that don’t publish their fares with Travelocity. Travelocity recently added JetBlue's fares, and sometimes it has fares on JetBlue that are even lower than on the airline's own web site. Go figure. Spirit Airlines' fares sometimes appear in flexible search, and sometimes they don't.
To use the flexi date function on Travelocity, click on the flexible travel dates box, enter the “to” and “from” airports, and click on select. A calendar of supposedly available dates will pop up, usually in green although sometimes in light blue. There is also an option to do a specific date search that returns fares plus or minus one to three days from your preferred dates of travel. Travelocity also automatically suggests lower fares from or to airports near those you originally specified in your search (Providence instead of Boston, for instance).
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Transportation has forced Travelocity not to list international flexible searches. It's possible this situation could be resolved, but it looks like it's permanent.
As an alternative, you can search for international fares over a 330-day search window using flexible dates by visiting Travelocity's Singapore-based affiliate, Zuji.com. Prices listed on this site are in US dollars, but you're not advised to book on the site (for one thing, its booking fees are extraordinarily high compared with Travelocity's fees). Once you find the dates you want, simply go back to Travelocity US and use a specific date search to book.
Uniquely, Zuji also does flexible searches for business-class and first-class fares.
On the plus side, JetBlue's fares are included and, like Travelocity, it shows fares up to 330 days ahead. However, it only returns fares on routes within North America, not international routes.
This site appears to work on the same software as Orbitz. It does the same 30-day-at-a-time search and comes up with exactly the same fares.
This site only performs a flexible fare search 30 days ahead, and you must specify the approximate length of your proposed trip, restrictions that don’t exist on Travelocity. Although Orbitz claims to list only US and Canadian fares in its flexible searches, in fact it does include international fares as well. However, fares on Southwest are excluded. Look for the “Flexible dates” link in the lower left corner of the blue box, then choose one of the three options. Domestic and international destinations are supported.
This site is known for its "know the airline only after you buy" discount fares, but you can also buy tickets the old-fashioned way on Hotwire. As with Orbitz and Cheaptickets, you can view flexible travel dates only in 30-day increments of your choice. The advantage is that the same search will also show you Hotwire's consolidator fares, which are often great deals when you don't have the usual 7-to-21-day advance purchase.
This company provides the software on which Orbitz and Cheaptickets (and many other sites) run. You can't book fares on the site—it's for informational purposes only—but many people find it easier to do a flexible date search here than on Orbitz. It's free to use, and you can register if you wish, but it's not required. As you might expect, there are no Southwest fares, but JetBlue's fares are included, a welcome addition.
Using the flexible search is easy: click on "Looking for airfares?" and then select a month-long search using the radio button in the upper right corner; type in the from and to cities, and choose an outbound date starting, generally, 7 to 14 days from today; hit go.
It's easy to search the next 30-day period and the next until you get an idea of fares. You can also search nearby alternate airports. Click on "Details" to find out more about the itinerary.
This site only searches fares between a limited selection of major US cities, although it used to offer a more extensive flexible date search option. Expedia has no flexible-date international fares, and no Southwest fares.
This relative newcomer recently added a modified flexible date search. You can specify dates up to three days after and before both your outgoing and return flights. It includes JetBlue fares.
Individual airline sites
Some individual airline sites also provide flexible-date search options. Among them are American Airlines—click on the “Dates Flexible” red arrow. Delta has a plus-or-minus-one-day flexible search, while American will search domestic fares only over any 31-day period. Southwest Airlines offers a low-fare finder that acts like a flexible search function. Air New Zealand displays an easy-to-read calendar showing dates on which its lowest-sale fares are offered.
Of course, flexible travel dates don’t work for everyone (college kids on school break, or last-minute business travelers to name two categories). But if you like to save money and your travel dates aren’t set in stone, it's highly recommended that you bend a bit.