It has come down to the point of no return while planning your escape. Unless you spend the extra cash on a refundable ticket, you are about to take a bold step forward and seal the deal on your trip: choosing a date and buying a ticket.
So how to find cheap flights? The long-haul airfare is one of the biggest expenses of getting on the road. If you ask 10 people on a flight what they paid for their tickets, you will get 10 different answers. Find cheap flights has become something of a dark art.
Tip: Yes, flight prices are loosely, somehow based on oil prices. But don’t think that because prices for crude go down that tickets will immediately follow. Airlines hedge prices by buying months in advance based on predictions.
Finding Cheap Flights
An abundance of ticket-booking websites out there can help you find cheap international flights. There are also additional things that you can do to leverage these tools.
Here are some insider flight-booking hacks:
- Look for cheap international flights around 60 days in advance. Other than last-minute deals, you will pay more as your date to leave approaches because airlines consider you a business traveler. The old trick of waiting until the last minute for empty seat prices no longer works! Sometimes buying too far in advance means that you’ll miss sales on fares.
- When is the best day to fly? Mondays and Fridays are usually pricier because of business travel. Sundays are also often more expensive as weekenders are heading home. Try to fly on Saturdays (if necessary to travel on a weekend), Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.
- Try not to fly within seven days before or after a holiday, both at home and at your destination. Check your destination’s local holidays and festivals. Consider big events such as Chinese New Year and Christmas that literally fill the skies with travelers. You may save a bundle simply by waiting one week to fly.
- If you are buying a round-trip ticket, staying longer than 90 days often results in a higher fare. Check on just buying two one-way tickets instead for the extra flexibility, but make sure your airline or first destination doesn’t enforce proof of onward travel. In a pinch, you can set a fictional return date and pay the change fee later. Caution: deliberately skipping your return flight will get you blacklisted on some airlines.
- You may find cheap flights after midnight EST in the middle of the week. Tuesday afternoon is often a good time to book cheap deals. This is when airline databases are updated and sometimes you can grab a cheap ticket that has been returned back to the system on Monday. Some experts recommend booking on Tuesday or Wednesday from afternoon to midnight.
- Many flight-booking websites use trickery to pressure you into buying a ticket sooner. They will show more expensive prices immediately after your chosen departure date and employ other nefarious technical tricks. Most sites set cookies to track what flights you search for, then raise the price just before you return to the site to book! They know just how interested you really are in a destination. Tip: try using a different computer, anonymous browser, or clear your cookies. Tracking has become even more sophisticated now, way beyond simple browser cookies, so the best approach is to utilize a VPN when researching flights.
- Search for flights at different times throughout the day (with anonymous browsing); you never know when a cheap ticket has been released to the system. But too much searching could show too much interest and raise your fare (see above).
- If you live in a rural place, take a bus (try megabus.com) or hitch a ride to the closest major airport hub.
- Make sure your luggage is not over-sized or overweight. Check individual airline sites for rules on baggage. Lots of airlines will tack on fees for luggage.
- Flights with longer layovers and very early/late departure times usually have lower price tags because business travelers avoid them.
- Fly into the largest city on the continent you are visiting. Take budget airline hops or travel overland from there to reach your destination. For instance, it may be cheaper to fly into Brussels (a major business hub) and then travel overland to Amsterdam rather than flying straight there.
- Try splitting your flight between two carriers if the timing works out. For instance, you could book a flight to LAX with one airline, then have a separate ticket on another airline to Asia. Sometimes just killing a few hours in the airport will save you hundreds of dollars! Allow plenty of time between the two flights in case something goes wrong.
- Although you can use booking sites to check prices, try booking your flight directly from the actual airline’s website. This cuts out a middleman that may screw up your reservation (e.g., seat preference, frequent flier program, etc) when it is passed along to the airline.
- Always use frequent flier programs. Getting rewarded may take years, but the miles DO add up and may come in handy in the future.
- Being as flexible as possible can help you find a cheap flight. Do not specify flight times, number of stops, etc.
- Never buy refundable tickets if they cost more — your backpacking travel insurance may have trip cancellation coverage anyway. A little known fact, airlines are required to provide a refund if you are forced to cancel within 24 hours of your flight.
The Best Places to Find Cheap Flights
Try these websites first. Yes, we get a tiny commission (usually $4) from some of them.
- Vayama.com — These guys have good one-way airfare deals.
- Expedia.com — Good all-around travel booking site.
- Priceline.com — bid your own price on airfare for cheap deals or you can do regular flight searches. Flights must originate in the U.S., but sometimes you can grab tickets on clearance through the auctions.
- Travelocity.com — use the “flexible ticket” option to get deals on domestic flights.
- Skyscanner.com — very interesting site for checking flexible dates.
Before Booking Try This
Once you find a cheap flight, go to that airline’s website and search for the same flight to compare prices. Sometimes you can get the exact same flight direct from the airline minus a $10 – $15 markup fee added on by the ticketing site. Also, by going direct to the airline, you eliminate some potential slips like not receiving credit for your frequent flier miles. Some airlines such as Southwest don’t release tickets to the databases.
Most tickets that normal travelers purchase are considered “non-refundable.” If you are buying your ticket well in advance like many do, this sounds a little scary. What if something comes up? What if someone gets sick? Here are some things to keep in mind:
- The price difference to make a ticket “refundable” is usually horrendous.
- Your travel insurance may have a cancellation policy which means that you can get your money back. Some are based on medical reasons and some are non-conditional. Check the fine print.
- Some credit cards such as American Express offer trip protection if you use their card to purchase your flight.
If you cannot go on your trip for some reason, tell the airline in advance! There is no chance for any refund at all if you do not notify them well in advance of departure — the sooner the better. Also, they will be needlessly paging your name in the airport. Maybe some poor vagabond on standby can have your seat!
Sometimes the airport tax portion of tickets will be refunded. Check into this.
“What About RTW Tickets?
RTW stands for “’round the world” and is a special ticket that allows you three or more stops along a route that you choose. There are usually strict rules in place such as making sure that all the stops are in the same direction, time allowances, etc. If you are planning a real RTW trip, this may be the way to go to save money. Otherwise, you are sacrificing some flexibility in your plans.
Different airlines have different rules, so research the ticket thoroughly. One thing to note is what happens if you have to come home for an emergency after having used only one or two of the stops.
Check out Bootsnall.com’s RTW trip planning tool.
Budget airlines are no-frills and a mostly reliable way to travel, particularly around Asia, Europe, and Africa. They aren’t a real thing in the Americas, yet. Many times you can get a cheap flight for less than a bus, train, or sometimes taxi! This is made possible because the governments in popular destinations subsidize the airlines — they want your juicy tourist dollars.
Here are some things to remember:
- You get what you pay for. The queues are longer, seating is chaos, and delays happen.
- Don’t even think about a free meal or beverage — bring your own snacks!
- Luggage size and weight restrictions may be more strict than regular airlines and the penalties are expensive.
- Allow plenty of time at the airport check-in and gate, they save money by hiring less real humans. You’ll have to use kiosks. Take advantage of online check-in if it is offered.
- Competition is fierce between budget airlines. You can cash in by signing up for newsletters, following them on social media, or checking their sites frequently for new deals and specials. A few sometimes offer flights under US $5! (taxes are additional)
- Some routes are shut down during the low seasons because of lack of passengers.
- The same philosophy applies as regular airlines — the sooner you buy your ticket, the better the deal.
Nothing beats the feeling that you get when you click the “buy” button on that expensive ticket. Regardless of whether this is your first trip or not, you will feel the excitement and adrenaline sweep through your body. It’s a rush! Knowing how to find cheap flights properly will save you lots of money over years of travel.sp