Flights are often times the most expensive part of traveling — to the point where they can dictate where you vacation. Even if you’ve found a great deal on a tour, or hotel, or airbnb, if the flight is way over your budget you can forget about the trip. This issue is compounded when traveling with kids or larger families.
What frustrates many people about booking flights is the constant flux in pricing. One minute they’re one price, and the next time you look the price has doubled! So you find yourself asking:
- Should I buy now, or should I wait?
- Will the price go back down, or is it going to continue increasing?
When trying to find cheap flights, you also need to factor in the value of your time. Researching flights for days on end can be cumbersome, and the value of your time spent shouldn’t be overlooked.
So…what is the best way to find cheap flights?
Well, unfortunately there is no magic formula. You can’t go online using Google Chrome in Incognito Mode at 3:03am on a Thursday and get the best deal. (Well you can, and you might, but that doesn’t mean it will work every time!).
But there are some tips and suggestions you can follow that will help you find cheap flights, and be more confident that you made the right decisions. Here is our list of 15 tips to find cheap flights.
1. Be Flexible
This one might seem obvious, but it has proven extremely beneficial for us so we wanted to start with it. The best way to find cheap flights is to remain flexible! Be flexible with regards to locations, days, times, airlines, and even airports when booking flights. The more flexible you can be the better chance you’ll have to find a great deal.
Sometimes the best deal could be departing from or arriving to another city. For example, typically the cheapest international flights out of the US fly from New York and Los Angeles. A bus, train, or even a regional flight to any major hub like NY or LA could save you hundreds of dollars.
This idea of flexibility, extends beyond flights to all facets of travel. Hotels, apartments, tours, rental cars, and pretty much everything else. The more flexible you are while traveling, the happier you’ll be in the end (and you’ll hopefully save some money along the way).
2. Incognito Mode and New Windows
Have you ever started shopping for a flight and after doing the same search a few times just minutes apart, the prices go up?
Well, this is VERY common. In fact, there have been countless articles published on this “phenomenon” debating whether or not airlines store cookies in your browser and then raise prices intentionally since they know you are ready to buy. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. Maybe the prices increase based on the number of times a specific flight is searched for in general, showing that it’s in high demand. Who knows how these airline algorithms actually work…
While there is no fool-proof way of getting around this issue, there are a few things we suggest trying.
- Use a private browsing window (like Google Chrome’s Incognito) to prevent any cookies from being stored.
- Search using multiple Tabs in your browser. If a flight stands out to you and the price is right, click the link to book. This starts a timer for you to check out. That price will be locked in (for the duration of the timer, at least) while you continue searching in another browser window.
- Search multiple sites (see below).
3. Search Multiple Sites
Many people have their go-to flight search engines they use when booking travel. The only problem with that is if you’re only searching in one place, you’re not getting the whole picture of what flights are available. Airlines and travel agents pay commissions or booking fees to the search engines, and different search engines have contracts with different airlines. Consider using multiple search engines to find the best price. Some of our favorites to search are Kayak, Momondo, and Skyscanner.
Airlines piggyback on other airlines all the time. For example, we searched Kayak for flights from Seattle, WA to Paris, France. Underneath each flight it will say if the operator is different than the actual airline listed for the flight. In this case, United is piggybacking off Lufthansa, and American is piggybacking off British Airways. If you see this, try going directly to the “Operator” website to see if you can find a better deal.
Some budget airlines don’t show up at all on the aforementioned commission-based search engines. For example, Southwest Airlines flights don’t show up in Kayak searches. Instead, try visiting your destination location’s airport website to see which airlines that airport services. Identify the budget airlines and check their websites directly.
4. “Budget” May Not Mean Cheaper
Budget airlines can be great, but they’re not always the cheapest option, once all things are considered. Most budget airlines make their money on customers checking baggage, bringing a carry-on, choosing seats, buying food, etc. You may find a great deal on a flight, but after you factor in all those extra costs it may not be as cheap as you thought it was. Check the fine print before booking a flight on a budget airline and plan accordingly.
5. Avoid High Seasons
Most people like to travel in the summer to take advantage of school vacations and good weather. Airline prices reflect that fact, and they boost costs to coincide with the high demand. Traveling during major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas creates a spike in demand to the specific city that holds those festivals. This also occurs to specific cities that might be having a major festival, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin.
Try to avoid those high seasons to get the cheapest rates. Fly either off-season or during shoulder seasons. And if you are flying for a festival, consider flying a few days earlier or stay a few days later. It can make a huge difference in price.
Usually the cheapest time of year to fly is between November and April (assuming you avoid Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years). Try to capitalize on this.
Airlines will always price their flights according to the demand. Most people fly on weekends, Mondays, and Fridays. People also like to fly in the middle of the day. Those are the days and times that will usually be the most expensive. Consider flying mid-week, early in the morning, or late at night for the best deals.
7. Fly for Free!
The best way to fly is for free! Sign up for airline frequent flyer programs, even if you think you’ll only ever fly that airline once. Most airlines have partnerships with other airlines and you can earn miles through their flights as well. Miles can add up quickly!
Another way to fly for “free” is by using your credit card rewards. Credit cards often have big signup bonuses (like 30,000 miles for free, for example). And if you use your credit card for all your monthly expenses and pay it off routinely, the reward points can add up quickly. Even if you don’t have a credit card that is linked to an airline, many still have travel benefits you can take advantage of, or you could always use cash back to purchase your flights.
8. Search Again After Booking
Under the Department of Transportation regulation, airlines must allow 24 hours for customers to change or cancel their flight without penalty. So, after you purchase a flight continue checking prices for the next 24 hours to see if you can find a better deal. This regulation will allow you to cancel and re-book in an effort to save money.
Most airlines give you the option to sign up for a newsletter or receive ticket notifications. We know…you get enough junk mail. However, this is usually how airlines will advertise flash deals as well. These deals may only be available for a short period of time and you may not be searching for flights when they are released.
Another option is to sign up for flight alerts. You can usually sign up directly through most flight search engines, or you can go to websites like airfarewatchdog. If you are in no rush but have an idea of when and where you want to go, these sites will track when prices drop and send you an alert so you can pounce.
10. Buy in Local Currency
If you’re buying a ticket from an airline based in another country, try buying the ticket in their currency. You sometimes can get a better deal paying in the local currency. However, this only really works if your credit card has no foreign transaction fees.
11. Don’t Book Too Early
We were once on a flight and we bought our tickets 6 months in advance. We had paid about $400/person for our flight and sat next to someone that said they bought their ticket a few weeks back for $150. Ugh. Booking too early doesn’t allow you to catch possible future sales. If you book too late, the prices usually jump up too. There is no formula of when to buy, but the sweet spot usually lies somewhere between 2-4 months before departure.
12. Love Google Flights
If you have never heard of Google Flights, learn what it is, and love it!
Google Flights allows you to put in your departure city and a date, and you can pull up a map and see what is costs to go anywhere in the world! You can play around with dates and destinations until you find a price you are comfortable with. If you know you have a vacation coming up, but don’t know where to go, this is the go-to tool!
13. DIY Hacker Fares
Many know that having a layover is usually cheaper than a non-stop flight. However, sometimes that layover flight may be more expensive than buying two one way flights.
For example, we recently needed to get to LaGuardia from Seattle. It was cheaper for us to buy two tickets (one ticket from Seattle to Boston and another ticket from Boston to LaGuardia) than to buy one ticket (Seattle to LaGuardia with a layover in Boston). Same exact planes and flights, but two individual tickets were cheaper than one!
This is similar to something called a “Hidden City” fare. Flying directly to a city is sometimes more expensive than buying a flight to another city that has a layover in the city you want to go to. For example, you want to go to Amsterdam but the flight there costs $600. There is a flight to Paris for $500 that lays over in Amsterdam. You book this flight to save $100 and you just get off in Amsterdam. Airlines, of course, do not want you doing this. And it’s important to note that if you have another flight on that itinerary (say a return flight), the airline may cancel those additional flights if you miss the first one — buyer beware!
**Both of these options require that you don’t check a bag. Otherwise your bag will be stuck in a city that you are not visiting.**
14. Airline Errors
Airlines sometime post a flight that may have an error in its price. Sometimes a flight is listed for much cheaper than it should be for various reasons. And lucky for you, there are sites out there set up to catch these mistakes and pass on the savings to the customers when they occur. A great site for catching such errors is SecretFlying.
15. January Sales
Sales happen throughout the year, and unless you’re on some sort of notification list (like a newsletter), you most likely won’t catch them. In general, January tends to be a very slow month for airline sales since people are back from visiting family and have spent too much money on the holidays. Many airlines try to stimulate business during this time by having sales! So consider searching for flights in January if you know you have a vacation coming up.
There are countless tips and tricks for finding cheap flights. Ways to work smarter instead of harder — like getting on mailing lists or setting up price alerts — and methods that require a significant time investment — like frequenting flight search engines and airline websites.
What it really comes down to is a cost-benefit analysis of your time and budget. Determine what your time is worth and how much you’re willing to spend on flights, and then research accordingly. If you find a flight, and it’s about what you expected to pay, buy it! Don’t waste too much time trying to manipulate the system because there are no perfect methods. And always be sure to buy travel insurance to protect yourself during your trips!
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