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 gas at your local station 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 30 – 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 or dips in fuel prices. Plus, who knows, something may change in your life, or you may decide on a completely different destination!
- 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 on holidays are heading home. If necessary to travel on a weekend, shoot for Saturday. Otherwise, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are a good bet.
- 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 Lunar New Year in January or February that literally fill the skies with travelers. You may save a bundle simply by waiting one week to begin your trip.
- 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 between afternoon and midnight.
- 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). Don’t shoot yourself in the foot!
- 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 despise them. You can save a lot of money if you’re willing to sleep in the airport.
- 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. But just in case, always check smaller airports that may have enticed budget airlines to set up routes.
- Try splitting your flight between two carriers if the timing works out. For instance, you could book a flight to LAX or NYC 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, when doing a search.
- 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.
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 budget airlines don’t show all availability to booking sites.
Think About Using a VPN
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. After a decade, this little trick is finally becoming well known. Unfortunately, tracking has become even more sophisticated now — way beyond simple browser cookies — so clearing them won’t help much. The best approach is to utilize a VPN when researching flights.
A VPN hides your true location and IP address, along with encrypting your data. They stop public Wi-Fi in places such as Starbucks from collecting data on your browsing habits. After becoming a believer, I can’t imagine traveling without one, especially now that Net Neutrality and privacy are under attack.
Most tickets that 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 far 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 even if the fare itself is not refundable. Better to get a little cash back than nothing at all.
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 a lot of 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 a no-frills way to travel, particularly around Asia, Europe, and Africa. Don’t expect stellar customer service — or even water on some flights. Many times you can get a cheap flight for less than a bus, train, or sometimes taxi! Flights for $30 or less are commonplace in Southeast Asia. This is made possible partly 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 can be chaos, and delays happen.
- Don’t even think about a free meal or beverage. If you bring your own snack or drink, you’ll need to keep it hidden from staff.
- Plan to pay a lot for checked baggage.
- 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. Budget airlines save money by hiring less real humans. You’ll have to use kiosks. Take advantage of online check-in if it is offered. Some will charge you to print a boarding pass!
- 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. Sometimes you’ll see flights under US $5! (before taxes).
- Some routes are shut down during the low seasons because of lack of passengers.
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.