Edited by Joe Cortez; June 2018
Just as airlines employ countless techniques to part you with your hard earned cash, there are plenty of tricks you can use to minimize the financial strain of booking a flight. Some international airlines charge local residents far less than tourists for the exact same seat and even the same fare class!
How do airlines get away with this? It all has to do with culture, international economics and how people buy their trips around the world.
Why are lower fares available on an airline's local website?
Typically, American air carriers charge similar prices for the same itinerary, regardless of where you’re booking from. The only benefit of switching to the American site from abroad might be to see the fare presented in U.S. dollars instead of the local currency.
In other parts of the world, local residents are often much more price sensitive than foreign travelers. While a $400 one-way fare for a 3-hour flight may seem perfectly acceptable to a tourist, a resident would never pay $800 for a round trip flight. Especially on competitive routes. For this reason, some airlines publish two different fares: one in U.S. dollars for Americans purchasing tickets, and one for residents paying in the local currency.
Another reason you may find a lower fare on a local website is because of competition. Many low cost carriers, like Ryanair, AirAsia and Nok Air, won't publish their fares on a global distribution system. Because foreign airlines are often at direct competition with these airlines for local flyers' dollars, they will publish a lower fare to lure them in. In this situation, competition is on your side - take advantage!
Conversion rates can also benefit your overall value when booking airfares. In countries where the dollar holds a higher value than the local currency, you might be able to get a discount by booking in the local currency. Be sure to use a credit card with no international transaction fees, or the potential savings could get wiped out quickly.
Generally, you can’t get these lower local fares by booking through a third-party site or a travel agency. Your best bet is to use a booking site to find the airlines and flights that travel between the cities you need with the fewest connections and shortest travel times (unless, of course, you’re trying to earn more miles by booking a connecting flight).
How do I book a lower fare on an airline's local website?
Once you identify an itinerary that works for you, head directly to that airline’s local site. You may first land on the airline’s U.S. webpage, since carriers direct you to a specific version of their site based on where you’re currently based. Once you navigate to the correct country version (for Air New Zealand, choose New Zealand, for example), you can search for the same flights that you pulled up in the booking tool. Some “locals” fares may exclude perks like checked bags and seat assignments, so keep that in mind when you’re comparing prices.
If a website won't let you go to the local site because of geographical locks, you may have to get creative. Consider using a VPN or the Tor Browser for privacy to ensure you actually get to the local version of the airline website.
This strategy applies best to national airlines and larger regional airlines. But for very small carriers, you may find the lowest fares by calling the carrier directly to book or booking only a few days prior to departure. There’s no guarantee that there will still be a seat, but if your plans are flexible, it may pay to wait.
Call the airline directly to confirm. Keep in mind when booking with any airline that some specific airfares may only be available to local residents. If you book one of those, you may be required to provide documentation at check-in, and could be denied boarding. In short: book at your own risk.
Does the local website strategy work for award travel too?
Unfortunately, you can’t use the same local site strategy when booking award seats — you’ll generally only see these discounts for paid tickets. However, you may be able to pay far fewer miles by booking with another airline’s frequent flyer program.
This depends on several factors, including the airline's partners, award pricing and if you have the miles to spare. But there aren’t any tricks like the one above to get you on your way for less. If the airfares are cheap, however, it may make sense to pay cash instead of redeeming miles, especially once you factor in high taxes and redemption fees.
When booking airfare, you never know if you're getting the rock-bottom deal on local travel unless you check. By going direct to your international airline's local website, you can ensure you pay the least amount of money to see the world.