Finding a cheap flight is often the first step in planning a trip. However, the cost of flights can be a major expense. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. If you know how to scour the internet for a deal, a cheap flight can be yours for the taking. Once you figure out the flight piece, the rest of your trip planning becomes easier to accomplish. Here are some of the things I do to find a cheap flight. Or at a minimum, the best deal I can find.
Cheap flight Insider tips:
- Book early
- Search different travel websites (and the main ones)
- Book outbound and inbound flights separately – even on different airlines
- Search as a single flyer vs. as a group
- Search airline maps’ online availability
- Include a stop-over
- Be flexible
- Fly on a budget carrier
- Secure an Award Ticket using miles
- Use Miles and Money
- Search airline websites from a different country
- Skip a segment
- Add a segment
- Sign up for blog or airlines’ emails or newsletters
Cheap flight tip #1:
Start scouring the internet and travel websites early on for the most availability to your destination. I would advise 3-6 months out especially for an international destination. You may even want to check earlier (6-9 months) if you are going to a popular destination during a peak time of the year (ie. Italy in July or Cancun/Caribbean during spring break).
Airlines will have the largest selection of varied seat pricing the further out from your travel departure date. That’s because airlines have different fares/prices for the exact same seats (in coach). Once the lower priced fares are taken (and that’s what goes first), then the remaining inventory will be the higher to highest fares.
The one caveat to this is that if an airline has a lot of seats still available and it’s getting closer to the departure date. Then, the airline will offer a discount on the seats because they want to fill them. You could score a really good price just because there is extra capacity (availability) and the airline wants to fill those seats. Refer to: Search airline maps’ online availability (cheap flight tip #9).
Booking early will also let you choose the seat you want. If it’s a long flight or you’re travelling with a group, then it becomes easier to find seats together. Sometimes that can make a big difference.
Cheap flight tip #2:
Search different travel websites (and the main ones)
Check out the major airlines’ websites (like Delta, American, United) as well as other travel sites like Expedia, Kayak, Travelocity.
This will help you to gauge what a competitive price looks like. And then you can set your expectations about what price you will end up paying. Once you find a competitive price, don’t hesitate too long before booking or that fare may be gone.
Cheap flight tip #3:
Book outbound and inbound flights separately
– even on different airlines
Airlines used to give a slight discount for booking a round-trip on the same airline. But this is no longer the case as airline pricing has become so transparent. Thus, it could benefit you to look for your ticket in separate searches. ie. Look for the outbound flight (to destination) separately. Then, look for the inbound flight (return from destination) separately.
I did this recently with JetBlue and American Airlines. I found a cheap flight on the outbound flight with JB. And also, a cheap flight with AA on the inbound flight. Had I chosen to book the entire round-trip ticket with one airline, then my overall flight price would have been $150 higher.
There’s no reason why you couldn’t leave with one airline and return with another. Check the flights both as a round-trip and then separately. I do find that JetBlue does give a slight (maybe $5-$10) discount for round-trip. But in my case the return flight on AA provided a bigger savings. I don’t find the other airlines to give any such discount.
By booking separate inbound and outbound flights, you can also arrive in one city and leave out of another. This can save you the travel cost of getting back to your original arrival point. For example, I flew into Rome and left out of Venice. This saved me from having to pay for a train or airline ticket from Venice back to Rome just to fly out.
Cheap flight tip #4:
Search as a single flyer vs. as a group of flyers
When searching for a cheap flight, if you are travelling with more than one person (yourself), search for each person’s flight separately. You can first search as a group to compare pricing. However, sometimes there are different fares/prices depending on seat availability.
Some airlines will show “2 seats left at this price” on their site which is helpful. But what if you are looking for 3 or 4 seats. In that case, take the 2 seats at that lower price, then search for 1 or 2 seats separately.
If you search for all 4 together, you will get a grouped price at the higher fare. That’s because in that fare category there are 4 available seats. In the lower fare category, there are only 2 available seats which doesn’t satisfy your search criteria. Thus, those fares will not be offered/presented to you. It’s a booking engine/fare pricing thing…
Cheap flight #5:
Search airline maps’ online availability
One trick I like to use is to go into the airline’s flight map of the seats available. You get to this by searching for a destination with dates, then clicking on the “available seats” for a particular flight. This will show a map of the seating arrangement inside of the aircraft. From here, you can see if there is a lot of availability of seats on the plane.
If you are closer in to the departure date of that flight, and there are a lot of seats available, then there is a high probability that the airline will offer a sale on that route.
If you see limited or no availability on that flight, know that the price of your ticket most likely will not come down. Therefore, know that the flight is getting booked up with limited probability of seat availability opening up.
Cheap flight tip #6:
Include a stop-over
Having a stop-over on your way to your final destination can often times yield savings. Check different websites to see what the pricing looks like to/from the same destination but with a stop-over included. You may have to select stop-over in the booking engine. If there is a stop-over and the time between flights arriving and leaving is bearable, then choose that option for a discounted fare.
However, if the layover time adds a lot of extra hours to your overall flight time, then consider the savings versus the time. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it to sit around for the extra hours just to save a few bucks. You could probably save that money elsewhere and get your time back.
Cheap flight tip #7:
When searching for your ticket, you can find the cheapest fares by searching under flexible or open dates of travel. Some airlines will present a monthly calendar of fares so you can see what different fares are available for different days. Ie. JetBlue does this; American does this by week, etc. So if you have some flexibility on the dates that you leave and return, try this option to find the lowest fares.
As well, if you are open to your travel destination, search for open travel dates and/or different destinations to see what city or country ticket prices are on sale. For example, if you want to go to the Caribbean or to Europe and are open to the destination, search for the different islands or European cities and see what pops up as a value fare.
Cheap flight tip #8:
Fly on a budget carrier
There are a lot of great options in Europe and Asia to fly inter-country and to another country with a budget airline. Some examples of budget carriers are: AirAsia in Asia & Australia; SpiceJet or JetAirways in India; or Ryan Air, Norwegian or Wow in Europe. These are just a few. In the US, we have Frontier or Spirit Airlines.
These budget carriers provide more flexibility for you to fly within a country and to another country. For example, if you find a cheap flight to Asia (any destination), you can then search for an Asian budget carrier to take you further onwards (to an alternate destination). Instead of taking a more expensive, non-stop, long-haul flight to your final destination. This allows you to stop over in a different town or city for a few days. Or, you can fly to your final destination with 2 cheap flights.
Keep in mind these airlines can be very, very cheap and you get what you pay for. When I flew on Air Asia (Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai; Chiang Mai to Bangkok; Bangkok to Singapore), it was no frills. There was no snack or drink onboard, I got only a carry-on allowance for free (not sure if this still exists) and there wasn’t a seating assignment. It’s the base fare which can be dirt cheap. Other amenities you’ll have to pay for. That said, fares can be so low you’ll almost not believe it.
You can get around fairly cheaply and on some long-hauls if you plan your flights out. You can fly all over Asia, Australia, Europe and India with budget carriers. So figure out how to get over to a different continent. Then, pick up a budget carrier to take you around. The savings from this can be quite significant.
Cheap flight tip #9:
Secure an Award Ticket using miles
Research your destination and which airlines fly there. Then, check to see if that airline has a travel credit card with a nice, juicy signup mileage bonus. This will allow you to earn big miles towards a free ticket. If so, sign up ahead of your travel time and complete the requirements to get the miles. Then, book your ticket.
Using miles for Award Travel does require some planning and a bit of time. You will need to:
- Sign up for the airlines’ loyalty program
- Get ‘approved’ for the credit card
- Complete the requirements
- Have the miles posted to your account.
In addition, the best availability for award tickets are waaay in advance. While planning my Italy vacation, I booked 6 months earlier than my departure date. You would need to get a travel credit card at least 6 months prior to the 6 month booking. Thus, card approval 10-12 months prior.
I suggest travel credit card since this provide a big chunk of miles upfront. There are other ways to earn miles with your travel credit card like shopping on the airline mall portal, dining out or using an airline loyalty partnership (ie. FTD, Netflix). It will take a good while longer for the miles to add up with these methods in comparison to the big signup bonus.
I find the Award Travel process to be totally worth it but it will take planning and patience.
With Award Tickets, you will have to pay the taxes for your flight and the airline processing fee. My trip to Italy amounted to $40 (instead of $700-$900 which would have been the actual ticket price range). Note: if you book an Award Ticket days before your departure date, you will also have to pay other fees to the airlines (and these may add up). In addition, there are change & cancel fees. In short, if you book Award Travel, be clear and sure about your travel dates. You don’t want to make changes afterwards.
Cheap flight tip #10
Use Miles & Money
While using airline’s loyalty programs, you can also take advantage of using airline ‘miles and money’ to pay for your ticket. If you are signed up with the airline loyalty program and have a set number of miles banked in your account, then use them to pay a portion of your ticket. Granted, this option can use miles at an unfavorable rate for the customer. It is nevertheless an option especially if you are travelling in off-season and ticket prices have come down. In peak season, it’s better to get an Award Ticket outright as the miles are in a set range and not variable as in miles and money calculation.
Note: some airlines may require that you have their airline credit card. Check the individual airline site for more information.
Cheap flight tip #11
Search airline websites ‘from’ another country
If you’re going to an international destination, consider searching for your flight on the airline’s website for that country. For example, if you type in AirCanada.com, it will prompt you to select your country and language. You can search from another country to see if there is a better deal from that country.
All the major US airlines (American, Delta, United) have this feature at the top of their websites. However, you may have never paid any attention to it. In addition, other carriers have this feature as well (AirCanada, British Airways, Quantas, etc). This reverse country option may show the US fares as more competitive. Or, it may yield savings from the other country.
In the case of AirCanada example, there’s a better fare if booking from the US site for a flight from Toronto to Ft. Lauderdale. Thus, if you are Canadian, switch to the US site and book your ticket. Do note that if booking in a country that is different than your own, the ticket will be priced in a foreign currency. Make sure you use a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee to avoid any surprises.
Cheap flight tip #12:
Skip a segment
Another tip to consider is ‘skipping a segment’. What this means is that you add an additional segment or flight to your final destination. This additional segment is one that you add but plan to not complete (ie. Skip). I did this during my trip to Hawaii. On my return from Honolulu, flight prices were very high from Honolulu to LA ($800). So, I searched for flights with an added segment: Honolulu to San Diego with a stop-over in LA. This flight was around $300. When we landed in LA, I disembarked without completing the LA to San Diego portion or segment. The airlines priced this longer trip as if I was going through LA to San Diego and not getting off.
To ‘skip a segment’, you have to skip the last part of the segment. If you ‘skip’ the first, then you can’t board the plane for the 2nd segment. I want to be very clear about the order of this. Also, when you search, select the beginning and final destinations (HNL, San Diego in this example) and check ok for stop-overs. Then look through the results for LA as the stop-over. You may need to search different final city destinations to get the best price (ie. San Diego, Phoenix, San Fran for example).
A word of caution: if choosing to ‘skip a segment’ of your flight, do not check your bags. You can only take a carry-on. You don’t want your luggage going on to the final destination (without you).
In addition, there may be some risk that your aircraft is the same aircraft going onwards to the final destination. Sometimes, the flight attendants will announce that passengers booked to final destination can/should remain onboard. Ignore this and disembark/exit. In the US, this rarely happens. Passengers are asked to get off the plane to re-board but an international airline may operate differently.
Cheap flight tip #13:
Add a segment
In addition, you can ‘add a segment’. This means that similarly, you can add a flight or segment to your trip. If you live in a major city, a city with an airline hub and/or within driving distance to another city, then search for a flight from that nearby city. This may yield a discounted fare. For example, if you live in Atlanta (Delta’s hub), search for flights from Birmingham (2 hours away) or Savannah (2 hours away), etc. You’ll have to drive to the other city to pick up your flight but if it’s not too far away, it could be worth the savings.
Note: you have to start on the first segment or you can’t pick up the second segment. Thus, you can’t book from Birmingham to NYC with a stop-over in Atlanta and try to get on in Atlanta. You have to get on in Birmingham. However, on your return, you can get off in Atlanta and skip the 2nd segment if you coordinate your airport pickup well. That would be a ‘skip a segment’.
Cheap flight tip #14
Sign up for blog or airlines’ emails or newsletters
Keep abreast of what’s going on in the travel world and all the latest discounts and deals by signing up for emails or e-newsletters from different airlines or blogs. If an announcement is made regarding a drop in price for a particular route or if there is an airline pricing inconsistency, make sure you are on the distribution list to be informed as soon as possible. Timing is everything and many of those deals get booked up rapidly — especially if it is an airline pricing mistake.
Airlines do offer fare sales (discounts) or specials for non-peak travel times. This includes Award Tickets which they announce in emails or e-newsletters. You may not be checking each airline website constantly so having the airline or blog email will help to keep you up to date.
*Background photo by Suhyeon Choi.