How I Actually Get Cheap Flights
Updated August 2023, How I actually get cheap flights was originally written in October 2019
We all want them, but finding them can be tricky: cheap flights. For me and many of you, flights are typically the largest expense of your entire trip.
In this post, I’m going to share with you guys how I actually find cheap flights– and this isn’t the generic bs list of which websites you can find cheap flights on that so many other bloggers have written, because I know you guys probably already know about Kayak, Skyscanner, Momondo, Airfarewatchdog, and more. I’m sharing with you the actual processes I use to locate and book cheap flights.
The Basics To Getting Cheap Flights
1. Be Flexible
This is kind of a no-brainer. If you have rigid dates you must travel on, you’re already throwing scoring a cheap flight out the window. Playing around with flexible date calendars on flight search engines can help you pinpoint and book cheap flights.
2. Research When The Low & Shoulder Seasons Are
Low-season travel can bring huge savings for budget travelers. Other good times to search for tickets are timeframes that coincide with a destination’s shoulder seasons. Shoulder seasons are great times to travel as accommodation and flights tend to be cheaper (though usually not the rock-bottom prices you’ll find at the lowerest of the low season), but they aren’t inflated to peak season prices either.
Do evaluate if the low season is going to make travel in that particular destination miserable though- it’s not worth the savings if you’re going to hate it.
For example, I live in Alaska and in winter (outside of the holidays), you find cheap flights. Wanna try your luck at seeing the northern lights or going on a ski trip? Then it’s likely a great time and great savings for you to visit in winter. If you hate cold to the point where you claim to be allergic to it- don’t bother, you’ll hate Alaska.
3. Plan in Advance
Planning your trip in advance can help you find cheap flights. But there’s a narrow window of time I find works best on this, so don’t try booking too early.
For domestic flights, I tend to find the best fares 2-3 months prior to departure, and for international flights, I typically find that 3-4 months prior to departure yields the best savings. These timeframes I find to generally be true, but there’s always times they prove me wrong.
Every now and again I find a cheap ticket short notice or several months out. It’s up to you to watch fare prices and try to pounce when you think they’re at their lowest.
Start Comparing Flight Options, Airlines & Engines
4. Search Flight Booking Engines Around Your Potential Dates
I find Skyscanner and Kayak to be my two favorites for getting an idea of what options are out there for me and my destination. Kiwi and Momondo are places you’ll want to check out in your search too.
Airfarewatchdog I usually reference to check for any flight pricing errors that will help you score massive savings (another site that does that is Secret Flying). Google ITA Matrix used to be a favorite of mine for finding cheap airfare, but more recently I don’t seem to find any fares that don’t appear on the big engines, but it doesn’t hurt to look. Play around with dates on all of these engines and see what the cat drags in.
5. Search To See What Airlines Serve Your Destination
The major flight search engines mentioned above all tend to have one main flaw in the eyes of us budget travelers: They may not include budget, smaller or country-specific airlines. A great place to start is to search Wikipedia for the airport you intend to fly to. That page will almost always include a list of what airlines serve it, but sometimes Wikipedia is out of date.
If you suspect that’s the case, I recommend going directly to the airport’s official site and scrolling through arrivals and departures. From here you can easily search the airlines’ (full-fledged carriers and budget) individual websites for fares.
6. Know Your Budget Airlines & All Their Sneaky Fees
As I just mentioned, many times budget carriers won’t appear on flight search engines. You’ll need to check budget airlines’ sites yourself to compare prices.
Another thing to note if you plan to use a budget airline is all the hidden fees that can sneak attack you and your travel budget. Budget airlines almost always charge for any and everything: baggage, ticket printing, snacks/food/drinks, and more. Any time I plan to fly a budget carrier I ALWAYS buy my luggage in advance (and enough luggage at that) and make sure my ticket is printed prior to heading to the airport.
But also note that a lot of full-fledged airline carriers, especially in the US and Europe now charge for checked luggage and any extras- so make sure you check their fees as well with this.
Here is a handy chart of budget airlines all over the world, broken down by region:
Middle East & Africa
Australia & New Zealand
Let’s Get Technical
7. Search For Nearby Airports To Your Intended Destination
Sometimes you can find huge savings by flying into a nearby airport. Some cities have more than one airport and in other cases, cities that sit right across the border from each other will have their own airports and prices may be substantially different. Other times you may find it a bit inconvenient, but traveling on a cheap bus or train a couple of hours to another airport in a different city might make all the difference.
Flying to Paris? Compare Charles de Gaulle to Orly. Visiting Vancouver? Seattle or Bellingham Airports might prove cheaper if you don’t mind taking the train across. Booking into another city does come with some caveats, which I’ll address in the next section.
8. Check Transport Costs To Nearby Airports & Compare/Contrast With Your Original Airport Choice
This is a big factor to look into to determine if those savings you’re getting on that cheaper flight to a nearby airport are in fact worth the while.
Is this airport served by metro, train, or bus connecting it to the city you’re trying to get to, and what does that cost? Is your only option a taxi? What do taxi fares cost?
In some countries, taxis are incredibly cheap, in much of Europe, North America, and Australia they can be prohibitively expensive. Bust out the calculator and do the math. Is the cheaper flight still worth it?
9. Live Not Too Far From Another Airport? Search Departures From There Too
Can you hop a bus or train to an airport a couple of hours away from you and depart elsewhere? This is worth looking into. In major US hubs like Southern California and the East Coast, many people score on crazy cheap airfares to Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Islands by hopping out of another airport.
My friend Amy from Away Lands recently flew home via San Fransico despite living in Los Angeles because she got an insane deal on tickets to Tahiti and then booked a separate flight from SF to LA. With how close many airports on the East Coast are it’s worth checking to see if an airport a couple of hours away might have cheap tickets to Europe.
Unfortunately for me, living in Alaska I don’t have this luxury as the only realistic airport with connections outside Alaska that’s not in Anchorage is Fairbanks and that’s an 8-hour drive away. But I utilize this tactic a lot when I’m booking flights from a destination I’m in back home.
10. Learn What Airports, Cities & Countries Have Lower Fees
I never paid much attention to this until I was living for a brief stint in Italy last year. I managed to fly my best friend from Denver to Rome roundtrip for $400, and my husband from Anchorage to Rome for $600 roundtrip. Those are amazing deals, especially the one coming from Alaska because holy sheet– I’ve paid double to triple that to get to and from Europe.
What I found out from a good friend?
Rome is usually one of the cheapest places to fly into Europe thanks to incredibly low taxes and fees. This isn’t so important in US airports as they all seem to have the same 9/11 fee charged across the board. European Airports, on the other hand, are all over the amp with different amounts of taxes charged.
Check out this post on the Travel Update that breaks down taxes levied at different European Airports across the continent.
Break It Down
11. Look At Connections, Make It A Multi-Destination Trip
Back in 2017, I needed to get from Anchorage, AK to Khujand, Tajikistan. Upon searching all the flight engine websites, I found that a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Khujand would cost me about $4,100.
Now, I know I could for about $1,000 book a one-way ticket to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and take a shared taxi to get to Khujand as they’re only a few hours apart. Instead, I analyzed that Anchorage-Khujand one-way ticket.
When I saw the layover in Chisinau, Moldova I got an idea: why not see if I can spend a few days in Moldova? I visited Moldova in 2012 and I really liked it. So I searched the flights again: Anchorage-Chisinau with a 3-day stopover in Chisinau, and then another search for Chisinau-Khujand.
I ended up finding the best prices for the Anchorage-Chisinau route on Kayak and for Chisinau-Khujand directly through S7.
The grand total? $850
So for 20% of the original price, I found upon initial search I was on my merry way to Khujand.
12. Multi-City Airfares
Sometimes you need to visit 3+ places on a single trip. Not always, but sometimes it’s cheapest to do the entire itinerary with one airline (or alliance airlines). This was the case when I went to Yemen and Sri Lanka in 2014.
When I started searching flights including Sana’a and Colombo I noticed most have a layover in the Maldives. I’d always wanted to go to the Maldives too, so I decided to search for multi-city tickets Anchorage-Sana’a-Male-Colombo-Anchorage. What turned up ended up being my cheapest option by booking directly through Emirates.
13. Search Open-Jaw Tickets
Open-jaw tickets are something I utilize quite a bit. Open-jaw tickets are when you book a ticket where the destination and/or origin cities are different.
I’ve booked open-jaw tickets several times when traveling in Asia where I would be traveling overland from say southern Thailand to Cambodia. This would warrant me having a ticket from Anchorage to Phuket and then a return from Phnom Penh to Anchorage. Many times airlines treat these similarly to a standard return ticket and prices are cheaper than booking two one-way tickets.
14. Compare The Prices Of Two One Way Fares Vs. Roundtrip Or Open-Jaw
Searching tickets as two one-ways can yield savings over return and open-jaw tickets. Usually, these come up when it’s cheaper on one airline going to your destination and cheaper on a different one returning from it.
Booking two one-way tickets is a fairly common way I travel, but many times this is mostly because I want to stay in a region for an indefinite amount of time and don’t want to book a ticket back home until I’m ready.
15. Hidden City Fares, But Be Careful
I’ve added this trick on here, despite having never actually utilized it, (though trust me, I have been sooooo close to booking one). Hidden city ticketing is this: You want to fly from Seattle to New York City, but you figure out that it’s actually cheaper to book a ticket from Seattle to Miami, despite it being a longer route on two flights, AND one of those two flights is the exact same flight you want to take from Seattle to NYC. So, you book a one-way ticket from Seattle to Miami and you just don’t get on the NYC to Miami flight.
This is one of the many banes of my existence
Why is it cheaper to fly an additional leg and use more resources and fuel? According to me, it’s bs and I think should be illegal for airlines to screw around with pricing so much (I see it no different than when I’m working as a dental hygienist and deciding I can charge $1,000 rather than the usual $120 for the coveted 4 pm slot because demand for 4 o’clock appointments are high, and let’s be real- I wanna go home early anyway. But alas, airlines get away with it, dental hygienists don’t).
But returning to my original point- the reason that airlines do this is because they use computer algorithms to price out flights. So in my Seattle-NYC-Miami case mentioned earlier: there’s likely a higher demand for Seattle-NYC airfares than Seattle-Miami fares on that particular day/season/whatever. The airline knows it can bend its customers over on this because people are going to pay the higher price because they need to get to NYC.
And this is where hidden city fares became a trend
-Everyone: F U airlines!
-Airlines: Oh, we’ll F U back!!
If you want to delve into the world of hidden city fares, check out Skiplagged which allows you to search these fares.
But there are a few caveats with hidden city fares
- Once you miss a segment of any flight booking, the remainder of that ticket is null and void
- You cannot check luggage on hidden city fares
- They’re technically illegal and if you do it too many times the airlines may take action against you
Regarding point #1:
I would recommend you only book a hidden city fare on a one-way ticket most of the time. If you book a roundtrip Seattle-Miami flight and you do as mentioned earlier and get off in NYC, the airline automatically cancels all other segments on that booking.
Here are the only times that hidden city fares will actually work for you: a one-way ticket where you would book Seattle-Miami and get off at NYC, OR you book an open jaw Seattle-NYC on departure and NYC-Anchorage return that has a layover in Seattle. On that Miami- Anchorage return you get off in Seattle.
With point #2:
Checking luggage would mean that your luggage would go to your final destination (Miami) and you would only go to NYC. So unless you can somehow guarantee you can get the airline to check your bag to your layover destination, you can’t check bags.
Also note, that you will want to make sure that carry-on is extra tiny and fits under your seat because (at least in the states) almost every flight starts forcing passengers to gate check bags as the plane ran out of overhead bin space.
Ah, and point #3:
There’s been a case where an airline tried to sue a customer who booked a hidden city fare. There’s a different case where I read about an elite platinum American Airlines flier who utilized hidden city fares several times on American Airlines (and used their frequent flier number on their tickets), in which the passenger received an email from American saying that they needed to pay up the cost of the skipped flights (the article states $1,315) to them, or else they would take away all the miles they had racked up in their account AND ban them from their frequent flier program forever.
Apparently in all that fine print that none of us read when booking a ticket (it’s called a contract of carriage), what we’re calling a hidden city fare the airlines deem an “exploitation of fare”, and technically have some right to legal action against you.
Exploitation of fare? Really?! How about the exploitation of our bank accounts?
Oh wait, we actually don’t have to book tickets or fly- we’re choosing to. Right (cue eye roll).
So here’s the takeaway with hidden city fares: First and foremost, be careful! But also don’t do it too often with the same airlines, only book them in conditions that it will actually work for you, don’t add your frequent flier number to the ticket, and don’t check a bag.
Other Tips To Help You Book Cheap Tickets
Avoid booking multiple tickets together, but also search them just to be sure
You’re a family or a couple trying to book tickets and you find that booking two individual tickets is cheaper than buying two together? This happens a lot.
Also with the two individual ticket thing, I have found that if you book the first one and then try to go book the second one immediately afterward that same ticket price skyrockets.
So what’s a fed-up-with-bs-prices flyer to do? Book both tickets at the exact same time.
I have done this several times when booking tickets for me and my husband. He has his laptop open and I have mine open, we both search the same ticket simultaneously. You’ll need to click ‘book’ at the exact same time, but voila! You’ll both get the same ticket and airfare for the exact same price.
Alas, it is good to search and see what the prices for booking flights on the same booking cost too- sometimes there’s some kind of fare sale/glitch/error going on that makes booking multiple tickets cheaper.
For instance, one time we were looking at going to Ho Chi Minh from Anchorage roundtrip. I was $750 each for return tickets ($1,500 total) to book our tickets on the same booking. When I checked the prices separately we were now looking at $1,400 each return ($2,800 total).
Use a VPN or incognito mode
Some people still swear by it and I’ve been hearing it for years. Other experts say this does not work. If you wanna try you’ll need to sign up for ExpressVPN and turn it on, or use incognito mode (Google Chrome) or private mode (Safari) AND clear your cookies prior to searching for this to work.
Either way, I have tried this tactic and I have never found it to be true in any flight searches I have done. Maybe I was a little late to the game, maybe it’s the destinations and airports I choose, or maybe it’s just my luck- but I’ve personally never found cheaper fares in this. But, I’m not saying don’t try it either. Maybe it’ll yield you some savings- it doesn’t hurt to try it.
Search fares in other (weaker) currencies
This is another tactic that price hackers have sworn by for years. I have attempted it but have never found a difference of more than a few dollars.
The method is simple, you search for the flight in another currency weaker than yours, then book and pay in that currency. The one example in which I read this being used was a passenger that searched LA to Auckland return flights and the price came up at $1,000 USD. Upon switching the currency on the webpage and searching the same flight in New Zealand dollars they found that the ticket price came up at $950 NZD (which is equal to about $600 USD).
Now that’s some big savings
This is another case where I say again: it doesn’t hurt to search and compare. But and this is a big but: make sure you plan to book your flight on a credit or debit card that DOES NOT charge a foreign transaction fee, to save you from having to give money away to your bank or card issuer.
Play with the ‘everywhere’ function on Skyscanner and the ‘explore’ function on Kayak
Got some time off coming up and not dead set where to go? On Skyscanner you can opt to enter ‘everywhere’ in the destination box, enter your dates and Skyscanner will come up with a list of destinations you can go with prices listed from cheapest to most expensive.
Kayak’s explore function is similar but operates slightly different. You enter your home airport and the months you want to search in (you can also enter in more details like price window, flight duration, number of stops, and activities) and a map of the world pops up with different prices labeled on various locations all over the globe. You can click on each price to see the dates and airlines these fares are available.
Use airline miles
This one’s pretty straightforward: if you have some airline miles/points racked up, why not use them? You typically will only need to pay a small amount in taxes and fees to utilize your mileage earnings.
Check out flight passes
Will you be traveling in a region or can stick with a single airline or alliance for a stint of time? You may want to check out flight passes.
Some flight passes offer you flexible travel options by giving you the ability to hop on a flight with an open seat whether it’s booked out a month in advance or in a couple of days. Others offer up huge savings by giving you a certain number of flights or segments for a predetermined amount of money.
Always research the cost of buying your individual flights vs. using a flight pass, because they don’t always end up being the best option. One World, Skyteam, and Star Alliance are all airline alliances that allow you to utilize their airline network.
Some agents like STA Travel and Flight Center may be able to book flights and get you a 20-30% discount if you’re a student or under 26 years old.
When I was attending college at UAA I searched these engines and not once did I find a ticket anywhere I was daydreaming about for any less than booking on a flight search engine. But just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you, so if you’re a student I say go ahead and try.
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- Booking flights are always cheaper on Tuesdays– Nope! People have taken that statement the wrong way for years. Upon a study, it was found that airfares were most often cheaper to book on Tuesdays than any other day of the week, several years back. That does not mean that you should buy your tickets on a Tuesday.
- Always book tickets x days/weeks/months in advance– There is no specific time period or a specific number of days prior to departure that yields the cheapest fares.
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