Finding cheap flights is easier than you might think. Below, I’ve put together a simple guide that will help you in your next search. About a year before I became a frequently traveler, I’d scour the web researching budget flights. I learned, that timing and flexibility are key in finding the cheapest options out there. This may not work for every destination, but my methodology has helped me fly internationally for as little as $170 each way.
10 Tips for Finding Cheap Flights
1. Research Budget Airlines – Unlike most airlines, budget airlines cut ticket costs by reducing expectations. You save money because less people are staffed, less luggage is allowed on for free, complimentary snack aren’t included, and seats are smaller. All of these factors may make for a less comfortable flight, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re trying to stick to a budget. For more on budget airlines, and to find out how I flew to Amsterdam for $170, check out my post, Best Budget Airlines. Keep in mind, that you may find better deals directly through a particular budget airline, rather than on a specific search engine like Orbitz or Expedia.
2. Use the most innovative search engine – When I first started traveling, Kayak was my go to for scanning the best deals. In the last year or so, the interface changed, and the deals aren’t as great as they used to be. Now, I find myself using Google’s ITA matrix and Skyscanner the most. Skyscanner is great because it allows you to be vague in your travel plans. Instead of locking in a specific route, like JFK to CDG (Paris), it allows you to choose the entire United States to all of France. For example, I may find that flying from Charlotte to Nice is actually cheaper than flying from New York to Paris. If the savings are over $100, I can likely find a flight from Nice into Paris for $50 or less. Being creative is what it’s all about.
3. Fly off peak and on the cheapest days of the week – Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are statistically the cheapest days to fly. Avoid flights to Europe during the summer months and aim for the fringe months instead. Traveling in the fringe months, like May or September, as opposed to July, could save you up to $1000. If you really want to avoid crowds and get a feel for Europe, travel during November or January. The caribbean works a bit differently, most people book their vacations as a winter escape. Traveling during the summer is actually cheaper in these locations. For places in the Southern Hemisphere, remember that weather patterns differ greatly. A cheap flight to Patagonia could be due to the fact that everything is covered in feet of snow. Similarly, that cheap flight to Vietnam could coincide with monsoon season.
4. Timing is everything – Waiting til last minute can literally cost you thousands. By the same token, the thought of buying a ticket half a year in advance can be daunting. Different scenarios work better for different destinations. For domestic travel within the U.S., I find that the best rates are around the 60 day mark. For international flights to Europe, I’ve always booked the transatlantic ones way in advance, typically by 5 months. For the smaller overseas connector flights, you can sometimes find reasonable deals just a few days or a week prior to travel. We purchased a flight from Paris to Geneva 72 hours in advance and it was only $40. My best advice is to buy your biggest tickets in advance, after you’ve researched the continental trends in your travel destination.
5. When you see a good deal, take it – If you find an unheard of price on a ticket, chances are it isn’t going to last long. Prices can change over night or in a few hours so you’re better off buying that great deal the second you see it. I recently purchased a flight from Atlanta to Detroit for $68 round trip. The flight was part of a Spirit Airlines promotion, and at the strike of midnight, that promotion ended. If you feel like a flight is going to get cheaper, use Kayak to set a price alert for you.
6. Buy in segments rather than in bulk – For my travel to Europe, buying flights individually has proved to be significantly cheaper. Say I want to get from Charlotte to Paris, on average, a round trip flight will run $1200-$1500. Now look at the alternate scenario: a round trip flight from Boston to Reykjavik cost $330, getting to Paris from Iceland was $180, Paris to London cost $45, and London back to Iceland was $110. Take those costs, then factor in the domestic flight from Charlotte to Boston for $165. Total, that’s 7 segments of flying for a mere $870. So what have we learned?
- being flexible can save you up to 50% in airline costs
- you get to see more destinations than you originally would’ve
- with the money that you saved on flights, you can afford to stay longer than you originally planned.
7. Don’t fly out of your closest airport – Being based in Western North Carolina is pretty perfect because I’m right in between two major international airports; Atlanta and Charlotte. If I decided to fly out of Asheville, rather than drive a couple of hours to one of the two, I’d end up spending about $300 more on tickets each time I flew. Factor in long term parking costs and gas to make sure that you’re getting the better deal.
- Watch out for parking! In Charlotte, you’re only spending about $5/day for long term parking; $70 in two weeks. In Atlanta it’s $16/day; $224 for the same two week time period.
- If I’m driving myself, I always try to use an alternate long term parking lot. In Atlanta I used a company called Preflight parking for my 17 day trip to Puerto Rico. Taking the extra step of parking elsewhere, then hopping on the shuttle, saved me $160 in parking fees.
- Ask friends or family to drop you off.
8. Join loyalty and rewards programs – These programs are designed to be taken advantage of. I’ve earned about 110k points just by changing the way I spend my money. That’s enough miles/points to get a free round trip flight to just about anywhere in the world. Taking advantage of the banking system is one of the main ways that I can afford to travel. To better understand how airline bonuses work, check out my post, How I afford to Travel. I’d also recommend taking a look at the Points Guy. His website shows you which cards are the best based on your credit score, and which ones have the largest sign on bonuses. Instead of finding cheap flights, you’ll be finding free flights.
9. Broaden your horizons – Budget vacations should be planned around low-cost airfare, so this means finding cheap flights first. If you’re planning a vacation, start about 4-6 months out, and have a whole month of time that you’d like to travel within. Then, come up with a list of destinations you’d like to travel to. From here I compare my options. What does 7 days in Napa Valley look like compared to 10 Days in Honduras? I could do 6 nights in Bermuda, or 2 weeks in Guatemala. What is important in your vacation? Thrills and excitement, or comfort and luxury. These are the type of questions that you need to ask yourself when you’re trying to make the most of your time away.
10. Pack light – I’ve never checked a bag for a flight. . A combination of control issues, time savings, and penny pinching strategies have led me to the conclusion that checked baggage is a total rip off. Do you really need all that much with you when you’re traveling? For my trip to Iceland and France the only luggage that I brought was an 11 lb. canvas backpack. For a 17 day camping trip in Puerto Rico, we managed to stuff a laptop, tent, cooking stove, nice camera, and snorkel gear into our carry on’s. Extra baggage just isn’t worth it. The only time I’ll willingly check a bag is if I’m packing climbing gear or camping items.
Finding Cheap Flights F.A.Q.’s
What’s the best deal that you’ve ever found? That’s really hard to say since everywhere is different. The ones that come to mind are LAX to Honolulu for $430 round trip and Miami to Lima for $170 each way.
Isn’t it true, you get what you pay for? I’ve found that this is true part of the time. For my budget flights with Norwegian, I assumed I’d be in for a rather uncomfortable ride. On the contrary, the transatlantic planes were equipped with interactive tablets and other commonly found amenities. Not what you’d expect for $170 each way.
Are there any cheap flights that you wouldn’t trust? Yes. While I trust most European, Australian, and American budget airlines, there are some other international ones that I wouldn’t go on. If I look at a website, and it seems like the airline has cut corners, then chances are, I’m not going to buy a ticket. I also look at crash history just like everyone else. Malcolm Gladwell pulls wrote about cockpit communication problems and how they relate to crash probability. His review makes me question a substantial number of Asian Airliners. Maybe I’m being biased or prejudiced, but I’m the one responsible for making safe travel decisions.
I can’t find any cheap flights and I’ve been using your methods. Some places are inevitably expensive. I’ve yet to find a cheap flight destined for the South Pacific or Australia. Some can be said of destinations in Africa. This is where those rewards points can come in handy.
Can you help me find a flight? Drop us a line and we’ll do our best.