How to Find a Cheap Flight

Flying High in an airplaneThe era of dirt-cheap travel is over, and — when the flight can represent the biggest part of your trip expenses — finding that hidden cheap deal can be just as important as finding the right location, the right tour company, the right backpack, or the right place to stay.

Rising oil, personnel, and material costs have all added to rising ticket fares. Bankruptcy has also meant that airlines, which are under pressure to make a profit, can’t reduce fares as much, and limited competition has given them less incentive to do so. Moreover, since airlines have slashed routes and capacity, they are flying full planes. Fuller planes also give them less incentive to reduce prices.

It’s a constant battle to find a cheap ticket, but there are ways to avoid being the person who paid the most on your flight. 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.

Here are a few tips that can help you find cheap flights and flight deals:

Be Flexible with Your Travel Dates

Airline ticket prices vary depending on the day of the week, time of year, and upcoming holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July. Overseas, August is a big month for traveling around Europe as many Europeans go on vacation then, so airline tickets tend to be higher.

It’s always cheaper to fly during the middle of the week than on a weekend, because most people travel on the weekends and airlines hike their prices then. Prices are also a bit cheaper if you fly after a major holiday. Early-morning or late-night flights are cheaper because fewer people want to travel then. Before you commit to your departure, make sure you check other dates so as to pick the cheapest day. If you are not flexible on the dates you want to fly, you will never be able to find a cheap flight. Even the difference of one day can mean hundreds of dollars in savings.

Be Flexible with Your Destinations

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Instead of going to a place with an expensive flight, go where it is cheaper to get there. Kayak offers the “Explore” tool that allows you to put in your home airport and see what routes have the cheapest fares. Google Flights also has a similar (and better) feature. If you are flexible with where you want to go (i.e., anywhere but home), these are wonderful tools to start your planning with. Other sites that have similar search tools: Whichbudget.com, Skyscanner.com.

Fly to Secondary Airports with Budget Carriers

Most major cities have a smaller, secondary airport. This is the airport most budget airlines fly into because it’s cheaper and helps keep costs down since smaller airports charge smaller landing fees. Check out which airlines fly into these smaller airports. For example, you can take JetBlue to Long Beach, an airport close to Los Angeles, instead of flying into LAX, and save some money; in Europe, the budget airline Ryanair will fly into Eindhoven, Netherlands, instead of Amsterdam airport, while Norwegian Airlines flies into the smaller and harder-to-get-to airports in Oslo and Stockholm. It happens throughout the world, so always look into where you are flying.

In America, there are only a handful of budget airlines. In Europe, there are more, and competition has kept prices there low. In Asia, budget airline AirAsia lets you fly lots of places on the cheap. For example, you can find tickets from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur for $30 USD. You can even fly from Southeast Asia to Australia for around $110 USD each way. Many times, 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. However, in general, these budget airlines are a good deal.

——-> Learn how to use these tips to search and book cheap flights

Try Alternative Routes

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Not only does it help to be flexible with dates and destinations, but try being flexible with the route you take, too. Sometimes it’s cheaper to fly to London and take a budget airline to Amsterdam than to fly direct to Amsterdam. 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. Use the search sites listed in the previous tip to see where the cheapest airports to fly into are.

By working various airlines and special offers, you can save a lot. This method is not for everyone, however. It is more work, as you have to figure out lots of different routes and check different airlines. But it will shave some money off your flight, giving you more to spend at your destination.

Remember, Not All Search Engines are Equal

Whenever most Americans do a Web search for airline tickets, they use Expedia or Orbitz. These sites either work with or are owned by the airline companies and don’t offer unbiased fares. You need to search as many flight search websites as you can in order to ensure you are leaving no stone unturned. Moreover, many sites don’t list budget carriers because those airlines don’t want to pay a booking commission.

It’s important to check a few sites before you book, as you’ll often see variations in prices, and you don’t want to miss a deal. The best search engines are the ones that have no affiliation with any airline and make their money via advertising, not bookings. But all websites have their weaknesses and do not include every airline. As mentioned, you aren’t going to find AirAsia, Ryanair, or most other budget airlines on large sites like Kayak, Expedia, or Orbitz. US booking sites also tend to not have the obscure foreign airlines that you see on international sites like Skyscanner or Momondo. Booking sites have blind spots since they don’t cover every region of the world and every airline equally.

Remember — there is no perfect airline search engine. Even the best have their faults.

——-> Learn how to apply these tips to searching and booking cheap flights

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.

Sign Up for a Frequent Flier Program

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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. Likewise, if I fly Air France, it’s credited to my Delta rewards account. This way I am always earning miles when I fly. However, if you aren’t from the United States, simply use an airline from your home country that is involved in one of these alliances.

There are a lot of other ways to earn miles if you aren’t jet-setting around the world all the time:

  • Shop at partner stores — All airlines have special offers for large consumer companies such as Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, and Target. Shopping at those preferred stores will earn you 2 – 4 miles per dollar spent, sometimes even up to 10 miles per dollar spent. If you spend $1,000 a month, you can earn up to 3,000 miles just by doing so through their websites. The products don’t cost extra. It’s a huge win! I do all my shopping through airline partners simply for the extra miles.
  • Watch for special offers — I sign up for newsletters because they often have featured offers not found on an airline’s website. This could be triple miles on a selected route or as simple as Starwood’s recent promotion. I signed up for their newsletter and got 250 SPG (Starwood’s Preferred Guest) points. American Airlines once gave away 1,000 points for installing a shopping tool bar into your web browser. These bonuses don’t go into the high tens of thousands, but you can get something over a long period of time by doing virtually nothing. They do add up.
  • Be a crazy flyer — On forums like FlyerTalk, where people seek out the latest chances for miles, you often find people doing mileage runs. This means that, if you fly a certain route, an airline will offer triple miles or double elite qualifying miles (these miles, unlike normal miles, count toward your elite flyer status and can only be earned by flying). 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, for example, from California to New York and back again if they find a dirt-cheap fare. Mileage runs are common among frequent travelers 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.

Join a Mailing List

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 all the last-minute or special deals that are happening. Many times, the cheap flights are only available for 24 hours, and if you aren’t always checking the Web for them, you will miss out on many of the super-cheap deals that occur. 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’ mailing list. Additionally, they offer frequent flier bonuses, and those deals have also gotten me free business class tickets. Additionally, airfarewatchdog.com, holidaypirates.com, and theflightdeal.com have good deal lists too. Mailing lists are essential, especially as you get closer to booking your flight.

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.

Know What You Want to Pay for a Flight

People always try to get the lowest price online, wait too long (or book too early), and then pay too much. We all know airline prices always bounce up and down, yet in our quest to hold out just a little longer, most of us miss the lowest price. 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 $900 as it’s probably not going to get that low. You will never have buyer’s remorse if you find a price point you are comfortable with. No two people on a flight pay the same price, so all you can do is hope you get the price you feel good about.

Book Early, But Not Too Early

With oil prices going up, airlines are raising fees. They were raised seven times in 2013 alone. Fares will keep rising but there is a sweet spot when the airlines begin to either lower or increase fares based on demand. Don’t wait until the last second but neither book far, far in advance. The best booking window is six to eight weeks before your flight, or around three months before if you are going to your destination during peak season. You can also read this interview with George Hobica, the head of Airfarewatchdog.com (an airline monitoring website), to learn more about the future of airline ticket prices.

What to Do Next

Take the tips in this article and learn how to apply them so you don’t end up the person on the flight who paid the most! Below are some other must-read articles on my website about airfare:

  1. Find out why airline tickets are so expensive
  2. Learn how to search and book cheap flights
  3. Learn how to use travel credit cards to earn free flights