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Not ready to book a flight? Here are 3 strategies for locking down the best airfare with no commitment.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Trying to buy the cheapest airplane ticket possible can be a herculean task. Because fares can change up to 130 times before departure, travelers get wildly different cost estimates depending on the minute they’re doing their research. Valuable time is wasted checking and rechecking regularly, or, you can wing it on a random day — and end up paying more than necessary.

Fortunately, there are price-tracking apps and websites to alleviate the stress of figuring out when to buy. But what if the alert comes through, and you’re not quite ready to book? You have a few options.

Buy your ticket and cancel it (within 24 hours)

Airlines won’t advertise this, but you can legally cancel or change a flight within 24 hours of booking at no cost. Thanks to one of the Transportation Department’s “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” consumer rules, airlines must allow customers to cancel or change a trip as long as the flight is booked directly with the airline and at least seven days in advance. The rule applies to domestic and foreign carriers on flights that start or finish in the United States.

Booking through an online travel agent (or OTA) like Orbitz or Expedia does not guarantee the same protection. OTAs can make their own rules, but some do offer 24-hour windows for cancellation. Read the fine print.

The 24-hour window can be helpful if you’re unsure whether the fare you’re booking is the best. It allows you to buy or hold the ticket without any risk (as long as it meets those three requirements), so you can cancel if a better one comes up the next day or you change your mind altogether.

Find a flexible airline

Certain airlines allow customers to put fares on hold for a fee. American Airlines offers an extended hold option for bookings on select routes made on its website. Hawaiian Airlines’ Fare-Hold option covers the Hawaiian islands, the mainland and international flights for three to seven days starting at $4.99. United has a FareLock program, holding for three or seven days for a nonrefundable service charge.

As you’re shopping around, check with the airlines to see if they have hold options.

Freeze your fare

If a 24-hour window isn’t enough time for you, and your airline doesn’t offer holds, turn to Hopper, a flight- and hotel-booking app. The app recently launched a “Price Freeze” function so that shoppers can put their fare on hold for up to seven days, for a price.

The function caters to Hopper users who have a price alert set up for a particular flight and aren’t quite ready to make the purchase when a “book now” message pops up on their smartphone.

Customers “can freeze that price for up to seven days to give them more time to make an informed, data-driven decision on when to book, and to speak with their partners or friends,” says Hopper’s chief strategy officer, Dakota Smith.

Hopper customers pay a deposit ranging from $5 to $40 based on how long they’d like to freeze their fare. Customers who ultimately end up booking the flight will have their deposit applied toward the cost of their trip. If they decide not to book, customers can use that deposit toward a hotel or a different flight within the freeze period. If they don’t book anything within that freeze period, customers lose the deposit completely.

Read more:

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The unofficial rules for every seat on a plane: The window

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