These guys know how to find the absolute best flight deals. Here’s how they do it.

Rida Wong is head of strategy and business development for The Flight Deal.

(Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press via AP)

Here at The Flight Deal, we find airline bargains for a living.

On our Web site, we scour the Internet for offerings that meet one criterion — they must cost 6 cents per mile or less. So, for a nonstop flight from D.C. to Paris to make the cut, it’ll have to come in at $463 or less ($463 divided by 7,722 miles equals 6 cents). We came to that number through our own experience — we travel between New York and San Francisco almost bi-weekly; and we never want to pay more than $300 for the 5,172 mile trip.

Unlike a travel site, you can’t actually buy the deal through us. And most of our deals can only be accessed on certain days. One recent option, a $402 fare from Washington, D.C., to Cuzco, Peru, on Copa Airlines, is available only in the fall.

That means we can’t always find good deals for people for the trip they need when they need it. And we know how tough it is. Airline fares update many times a day, which makes it hard to know when to buy. That $298 fare from D.C. to San Francisco might be $258 the next hour or worse, it could jump to $358.

According to Expedia, their visitors search, on average, 48 times for a fare before making a purchase. That’s a big chunk of time. So how can consumers find a great flight deal in an uncertain environment?

Here are our tips:

Build a benchmark

Do you know how much a ticket between two cities should be? Use Google Flights or ITA Matrix to view fare prices for a whole month. (These are our top picks, because they’re faster and don’t require registration.) This makes it easier to get a sense of airfare prices within a given month. While you may not be able to get the lowest fare on the specific dates you require, you’ll know how low the fare could be. That way, you’ll be able to tell if that e-mail you’ve received for a $599 one-way to London is worth it. Remember: Just because the price dropped doesn’t make it a good deal.

Know when to search

Fares are published on airline’s sites on a daily schedule set by the Airline Tariff Publishing Co. For domestic fares, they’re published at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. EST on weekdays and 5 p.m. EST on weekends. Airlines can’t change prices in between those times. If you are going to search 48 times before buying, you might as well search shortly after the fares are released. We have seen fares get released at 10 a.m. and changed by 1 p.m.

Flexibility is key

There is a lull in travel from January to April and September to November, the so-called off-season. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturdays are the slowest travel days. Airlines price their fares accordingly. Those are the times you are likely to score a deal. If you are traveling outside of those times, expect to pay significantly more. In those cases, benchmark what those fares should be so you can act quickly when there’s a sale.

When to buy

Everyone seems to have an opinion on when to buy, whether it’s 54 days in advance or on Wednesdays or midnight or when the moon is fully eclipsed. We don’t really buy into any of these hard and fast rules. Prices are going to go up and down, so buy the fare and be happy you’re going to be taking a trip.

Also of note, as a consumer, you have certain protections — the Department of Transportation requires all airlines and agents to give you a 24-hour risk-free cancellation period. If you see a great fare buy it, then use this protection to firm up your travel plans. You can always cancel your ticket without penalty within a day of booking.

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Daniel W. Drezner · June 13, 2014

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