How to Find a Cheap Airplane Ticket

By Nomadic Matt | Published May 27th, 2014

airplane tail fins
Airline tickets seem to get more expensive every year. That flight that cost $200 last year is $400 this year and, as flights often represent the biggest expense of someone’s trip, these higher prices are keeping more people at home. While the era of dirt-cheap air travel is over, there are still ways to find deals.

The four major reasons prices go up and down are competition, supply, demand, and oil prices. Together, these four measures affect a lovely thing called “load factor”. Airlines want to fill their planes and maximize profits, and they do this by calculating a plane’s load factor. Essentially, this is the percentage of seats sold on a flight. If the load factor and demand are both low, an airline will increase the availability of cheap fares to fill the plane. If the load factor and demand are high, the airline will raise the price.

Thus it is a constant battle to get the cheapest ticket before an airline raises the price. Luckily, there are still plenty of ways to avoid being the person who paid the most. To me, that’s what it is all about – being one of the lucky ones who got one of those cheap price points from the airline. While this is a subject I’ve brought up before, it has been years since I’ve addressed it on the blog and, given the changing nature of air travel, I wanted to talk about the latest ways to find cheap airfare:

Be flexible with your travel

Ticket prices vary greatly depending on the day, time of day, time of year, and upcoming holidays. If the kids are on school break, expect higher fares. If it’s a holiday, the fare goes up. Anytime more people want to fly, fares go up.

Being flexible with your dates and times is one of the most important ways to save money. The difference of a day can mean the difference of hundreds of dollars. You want to fly when no one else is flying. It’s cheaper to fly mid-week than on a weekend because most people travel on the weekends and airlines raise prices for those flights. If you fly right after a major holiday, prices tend to be a bit cheaper. Think about Thanksgiving, which is on a Thursday. Everyone flies home that Tuesday and Wednesday so fares are higher on those days. Since people return on Sunday or Monday, fares are high those days, too. But since most people want to stay with their families and shop on that Friday, returns are low on that day.

Moreover, early morning or late night flights tend to be cheaper. Few people want to be up at 5 a.m. for a flight or have to fly overnight. Most business travelers leave on Monday and come back on Friday and families tend to travel over the week, thus mid-week fares tend to be less expensive.

If you aren’t flexible in the dates and times you want to fly, you will never be able to find a cheap flight.

Be flexible with your destinations

Instead of going to a place with an expensive flight, go where the flight is the cheapest. Kayak offers the “Explore tool” that allows you to put in your airport and see route prices all around the world. Just look to see what destination is the cheapest! Google Flights also has a similar (and better) feature and I use it often. If you are flexible with where you want to go (i.e. anywhere but home), this is a great way to start researching where to go.

I always enter in my departing airport and search for “anywhere.” Whatever comes up the cheapest in an area I want to explore is often where I go!

Fly budget airlines

In America, there are only a handful of budget airlines. In Europe, there dozens and competition has kept prices there very low. In Asia, Air Asia has led to a huge drop in fares and is a great budget airline to fly. Often these low-cost airlines offer no-fare tickets — you pay just the taxes. Flying the budget airlines is a good alternative to flying the “majors” whenever possible. You get fewer “perks” but you can save a bundle in ticket costs. But be sure to check out how far the airports are from the city center — sometimes transportation from the airport to the city can actually make a budget airline more expensive.

More and more budget carriers are doing long-haul, cross continent flights (i.e. Norwegian to the U.S. or Air Asia to Australia or South Korea) and these airlines represent a big savings opportunity. Be sure to fly them. Momondo and Skyscanner have the best listings of budget carriers.

Find alternative routes

Flying High in an airplaneNot only is it important to be flexible with your dates, but try being flexible with the route you take. There are so many budget carriers around the world that taking advantage of a good deal to another city and then hopping on a budget flight to your destination is sometimes the best way to go. I had to go to Paris once. The flight was $900 USD but I could fly to Dublin for $600 and get a $60 flight to Paris. It meant more flying time, but the $240 I saved was worth it. I use Google Flights to look for a cheap major airport to fly into and then Skyscanner or Momondo for a budget flight to my final destination.

By working various airlines and special offers, you can save a lot. This method is more work as you have to figure out lots of different routes and check different airlines, but it will often shave money off your flight, giving you more to spend at your destination.

Check multiple search sites

Whenever most Americans do a Web search for airline tickets, they search Expedia or Orbitz. As this article shows, you are making a big mistake if you do just that. You need to search as many flight search websites as you can in order to ensure you are leaving no stone unturned. Many sites don’t list budget carriers because those airlines don’t want to pay a booking commission.

It’s important to check multiple booking sites as all websites have their weaknesses and do not include every airline. You aren’t going to find Air Asia, Ryan Air, or most other budget airlines on large US-based sites. All booking sites have blind spots since they don’t cover every region of the world and every airline equally. Check multiple sites. My favorites are:

Skyscanner
Momondo
Google Flights
Hipmunk
Kayak

Take advantage of student discounts

If you are a student, there are many, many discounts available to you. Check out STA Travel and their search engine. You can find flexible student tickets on their website and at agency stores. I used them for a $400 ticket from Athens to Bangkok. That wasn’t even the cheapest flight, either, just the cheapest direct flight. There are many student codes out there, and many of the tourist agencies in backpacker areas can help find you a cheap ticket.

Clear your cookies

While it’s not 100% proven that booking sites and airlines track your cookies and change prices, there’s enough circumstantial evidence for me to say that if you’re going to be checking prices over multiple days, clear your cookies each time. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Use frequent flier miles

Flying High in an airplane
Airline rewards programs are a great way to get free flights, free upgrades, and free companion tickets. No matter how often you fly, you should be signed up for the airline’s reward program. I stick to US based airlines since they are involved in all the major alliances and you can earn miles on their partner flights. For example, if I fly Singapore Airlines, I can earn United Airlines miles because they are partners. I get Delta miles on an Air France flight and vice-versa. Or American Airlines and Cathay Pacific. You should always be earning miles when you fly. If you aren’t from the States, simply use the airline you fly most and bank miles to them.

Moreover, there are a lot of other ways to earn miles if you aren’t jetsetting around the world all the time:

  • Shop via airline portals – All airlines have special offers for large retailers. Shopping at those stores will earn you 2 to 4 miles per dollar spent (sometimes more). All you do is shop online via the links on an airline’s website and you’ll get the extra points added to your account. It’s a lot better than earning one point per dollar spent by going to the store directly. The products don’t cost any extra. I do all my shopping through these portals simply for the extra miles.
  • Watch for special offers – I sign up for newsletters because they often feature offers not found on an airline’s website. This could be triple miles on a selected route, taking a survey, participating in a Facebook contest, or simply installing an airline shopping toolbar in your web browser. These bonuses aren’t high but they take minimal effort and add up over time.
  • Be a Crazy Flyer – On forums like FlyerTalk, where people hunt out the latest chances for miles, you often find people doing mileage runs. This means that an airline will offer triple miles or double elite qualifying miles (these miles, unlike normal miles, count towards your elite flyer status and can only be earned by flying) if you fly a certain route. When airlines get into price wars or offer new routes, they often launch ridiculous double or triple mile offers. Many people then fly these routes just for the miles. They will fly from California to New York and back again if they find a dirt cheap fare in order to gain miles. Mileage runs are very common and while not free, can be a useful method to gain a lot of miles on a cheap fare.
  • Put everything on the card – I pay nothing in cash. I put everything on my travel credit card – from Starbucks to phone bills. My total monthly spending, including my business expenses, is about $3,000 per month. That’s 36,000 miles just for doing nothing special. That’s a free one-way flight to Europe right there.

In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character said “I don’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit my miles account.” Think like that. By following the tips above and using the websites listed in the credit card section for finding bonus offers, you’ll be able to accumulate a lot of flight miles.

Don’t miss out on sales

No one likes to clutter up their inbox, but by signing up for mailing lists from airlines and search engines, you’ll be able to get updates about last-minute deals or mistake fares (like the recent $130 NY to Tokyo flight on Priceline). Many times, ticket sales are only available for 24 hours, and if you aren’t always checking the web, you miss out. I would have missed out on a round trip ticket to Japan for $700 USD (normally $1,500) if I wasn’t on American Airlines’s mailing list. Mailing lists are essential and I subscribe to a ton.

I collate all these deals each week and send them out in a weekly newsletter. If you don’t want to subscribe to hundreds of newsletters, subscribe to mine and let me do all the work for you.

Additionally, Airfarewatchdog, Holiday Pirates (Europe based), and The Flight Deal are great sites that will keep you alert of last minute specials or deals.

Moreover, if you use Twitter, follow airlines and search websites because they post a lot of fare sales that can keep you in the loop.

Avoid peak season

Want to go to Europe in the summer or Hawaii during Christmas or Disney when the kids are on break? So does everyone else and as such airline tickets are priced at their highest since the demand is so great. Be a contrarian traveler and save.

Buy at the right time

The best time to book a ticket is around 6 to 8 weeks before your flight, and around 12 to 16 weeks if booking during peak season. During this time period, airlines know if a flight is going to sell or not and will begin to either lower or increase fares based on demand. Don’t wait until the last second because airlines realize if you are booking close to departure, you probably need the flight. On the flip side, don’t book too far in advance because airlines are going to wait as long as possible to release the cheaper fares.

Know your price

People always try to get the lowest price, wait too long, and then pay too much. We all know airline prices bounce up and down, yet most of us miss the lowest price by holding out a bit too long. Therefore, it’s important to know what you want to pay, not what you hope to pay. What’s the lowest price for YOU? What do you feel comfortable paying? Don’t wait for the perfect price — wait for YOUR price.

Be realistic too. If the lowest available price is $1,000 for a flight but the average is $1,500, don’t try to wait for $800 – that’s probably not going to happen. Given that flights are best around eight to twelve weeks out, I’ll begin to look around three months in advance and slowly see how the price goes. If it starts to the high end of my comfort zone, I’ll look at available seats on the flight. If there aren’t many left, I’ll book the flight as normally this indicates prices aren’t going to go down (a mostly sold-out plane means airlines have no incentive to lower the price). Sometimes I don’t find a price I’m comfortable with and I look for a new place to go.

Book within your comfort zone and never have buyer’s remorse.

*********
The prices of airline tickets aren’t going to get cheaper anytime soon. While tickets are historically cheap when compared to inflation, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when the ticket we bought last year is twice the price this year. All we can do is hope to get a price we are comfortable with and avoid being the sucker person who paid the most for that tiny economy seat. With the tips above, you’ll be able to do just that and have more money for your destination!

comments 43 Comments

I use Skyscanner and Google Flights every single time I want to buy tickets. I like having the possibility of comparing different airports, routes and dates, it makes me feel like I am making the smartest possible decision every time.

But I had no idea about cookies and search engines! I will try to remember that next time.

This is fantastic! Thanks for putting all these flight booking tips in one place – even learned a couple new ones (e.g. mileage runs… did not know this even existed!).

Are you able to pay rent via credit card? I never thought to ask about this, but I wonder if this is common practice these days in NYC. Pretty sure my landlord prefers good ol’ fashioned checks.

Matt forgot the best way to travel for free–simply marry a pilot of flight attendant! Worked for me (for the first 5 years until she quit working…ha! :-)

Jeff

I am almost 99% sure airlines/sites track cookies and change prices, a friend and I were booking tickets on the same laptop. The same flight ticket price jumped up by 80$ when I booked right after him! Now, 4 days later, the price is back, down by the 80$. Kicking myself for letting this happen. :(

Agree 100% on the cookies! Again, just anecdotal, and I can’t prove it but I know it. I know KNOW, that searching for a bunch of flights and 10 minutes later the next search creates a higher price.

NomadicMatt

Better safe than sorry (plus it only takes a second to do)!

Nate

Just want to comment on the information regarding cookies and websites.

I’m a travel agent and the cookies information is simply not true. I deal with this everyday.

What happens is when you look at a flight, you’re actually holding space on that flight. So, a client comes in to my shop and they’re looking at a flight on a booking engine for $500. They’re using their phone to show me. But if that was the last seat in that fare class, I won’t be able to find that seat in my booking system.

I’ve tested this by looking at a flight price online, then going into my system and started holding space on the same flight. So when I go back to the website, the price is now higher.

Basically, whenever you look at a flight online, you’re actually holding space for about five-ten minutes.

Another thing with Kayak/Google flights etc, they rarely, if ever had correct prices. They use old information and old fare that are no longer available. My system communicates directly with the airline and if they say they saw a price for $500 on Kayak, and in my system the flight is $700, Kayak is wrong.

I track prices by a variety of ways, I sign up to alerts via Momondo and Skyscanner, I check on STA Travel and I check on the actual airline website as sometimes it’s cheaper there than other websites.

great tips. The airlines love me because I almost always travel last minute and pay what they want… I need to start planning better!

Great advice! If only the skies were more friendly

Great article, Matt! Checking alternate routes worked out well for me my trip to Ireland. A ticket to Dublin was listed for $840, but I was able to buy one to London (going through Dublin) for less than $500. Oh, and I personally believe the clearing cookies thing is 100% true. I have several screenshots to prove it. :)

Yeah, the cookie issue pisses me off so much! And I’ve just found how to trick it. You should use TOR browser – the one the lets you serf anonymously via different computers in different countries.

What helped me get better deals is using IP from Eastern EU and African countries. Had better prices returned by a few airlines like Lufthansa ;D

Dana

Another tip along the lines of “Be flexible with your destinations”: Go places where expenses are cheap (food, accommodation, etc.) if the flight is not. Flights to SE Asia and Central America may be pricey, but once you get there, everything else is extremely economical.

Thanks for the tips. Too bad there’s only one bank in Slovakia that offers a credit card with airline rewards program and it’s nowhere near american’s ones. There’s a crazy high minimum credit limit of 5000 euros a month (average wage is like 800 euros), it costs around 90 euros a year and it only gives you 5 miles for every 9 euros spent. It sucks.

Bryant

Any tips on purchasing around the world airfares?

NomadicMatt

Do you mean RTW tickets? If so, there’s a blog on that subject. Just use the search tool to find it!

This is so helpful! Thank you for your courageous honesty!

This is great. The flight is always the killer when it comes to travel expenses. I think being flexible is the most important thing. Sometimes a difference of only one day can save hundreds of dollars. Crazy isn’t it?

thank for the genius tips. i will try clear cookies .. maybe something will show up.it is Malaysia airlines? So scary…

Matt’s thanks for putting all these great tips on one page. I just recently saved a couple hundred dollars by booking a flight in a nearby city. I live in Knoxville, TN but found by taking a flight from Atlanta, GA I could save money. The drive is only a couple hours away but it was well worth it!

I’m absolutely going to use the “Be flexible with your destinations” tip on my next travel..
Most of the times I’m locked on a destination and just flexible with the dates, but being flexible with the destination is one higher lever of spontaneity.

NomadicMatt

Go where the wind takes you! :)

Awesome tips and great timing since I’m currently looking for my first flight to Europe! Cheers!

Thanks for the advice! I’ve always found looking for plane tickets very stressful! I also had never used the Google Flights or Kayak’s Explore tool before. I’ll use those in the future though!

An interesting nugget for cross Canada travelers that are carless: the bus from Thunder Bay to Toronto is more expensive than flying ($185 bus, $135 one way via Westjet, and prices that were even LOWER on days other than the one I was checking)

Wow these are great tips. I did not know about the frequent flyer miles.

Usually when I track tickets I always travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Those days are always cheaper to fly compare to Monday and Fridays, because of the business people who are usually home for the weekends.

I completely agree with Sir Matt about cookies which is really troublesome. That is why I set my browser preference to delete cookies everytime I close the window. No peep for those creep. Thanks to Matt

Track cookies and change prices accordingly? I had no idea about that, that kind of walks the tightrope of ethics.

Dude great tips! I recently watched a video on FoxNomad where he suggested using a US VPN to find cheaper airfare because prices are cheaper in the US. What do you think?

The best tip here is to clear your cookies. Time and time again I see more and more companies doing this based on your search history. However, on the other hand it can sometimes lead to cheaper deals when websites try to tempt you back with better offers.

Hey Matt, great advise; I’ve heard of student discount flights, but have never been able to figure out exactly how to access them, so I will definitely try out Statravel! I have been using Kayal.com/explore to find the cheapest flights to anywhere at anytime from different airports. I also had no clue about the cookies!

I never fly anything but budget airlines in both Asia and Europe. They’re so much cheaper than airlines in the US and the flights are almost always excellent.

Good tips here.

If you are travelling to Europe from Asia, check out Cheapoair at http://www.cheapoair.com/. Usually, they will undercut the other carriers by $20 – $50. I booked an emirates return for $1200 from Singapore-Milan about a week before flying out in Feb this year. It was about $300 cheaper than singapore airlines and lufthansa.

Apart from Momondo and Skyscanner, Expedia is also a great sours!

A great article Matt, one that will be a favourite for everyone! I’ve learnt that being flexible with your dates really does save you some extra money that you could then use elsewhere. When you fly frequently it’s amazing how much you save suddenly builds up

Josh (@evilsizor)

Regarding this comment, “I’ll look at available seats on the flight.” What’s the easiest/quickest way to do this?

NomadicMatt

All airline websites allow you to see the seats that are open on the flight you are looking at!

Great article. The flight is always the first thing I purchase before planning my trip. I decide on the dates and actvities after I have found the cheapest possible flight and I almost always start searching months in advance (probably too early lol). Any advice for flights to Hawaii? I have to plan a trip to Maui next April for a friends wedding so any advice on good airlines is much appreciated.

Ashley

I love browsing through your website, Matt, and have begun to implement your budgeting tips. I just recently received my travel credit card and am looking to earn miles (first for a trip to NYC and then for my world travels next year).

One of my biggest expenses right now is my student loan payment. However, when I sign up for auto-enrollment through a bank account, my interest rate is lowered. Is there anyway to loop this through my credit card so I can earn miles AND lower my interest rate? I figure this is a pretty common occurrence, so I’m hoping there is some travel hacking solution out there.

NomadicMatt

As far as I know, loan providers don’t take credit card payments. It’s never worked when I tried but it never hurts to ask!

Mac

Great article. Def helpful when booking flights from Hawaii :) Thanks!

Yeah! I bet you right. I always travel and never miss a year to set out to a domestic or international place. I also noticed the increasing amount of airfare. That’s why weeks or a month ahead of my trip, I make sure to book to avail cheap flights.

Really great tips here! I am always on the hunt for the latest on saving money on air travel. Momodo is also a great app that pulls in some of the smaller airlines and helps save money.

Leave a comment