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How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets

I’ve been obsessed with finding cheap flights since I was a kid (and would call up a travel agent and spend 20 minutes on the phone unrealistically asking for different quotes for flights. I was 12 and not in any position to buy anything.) But I’ve always been in love with the idea of escaping life and going on an adventure. We’ve come a long way with booking travel since the invention of the internet but it’s still pretty tricky to find affordable airfare. In the past 10 years it’s become even harder to find reasonable airfare. (Did you read this article about how the airline industry has finally figured out how to be extremely profitable? As an avid airfare hunter this is something I’ve observed anecdotally so it was interesting to have it confirmed by another source.)

I always get asked how I find cheap airfare so today I thought I would share some of my tricks.  I know traveling isn’t for everyone and I also know that a lot of people live month to month and not everyone has the means to live, let alone travel. This article is for the people that have a little money and want to go on a trip.

How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets | Oh Happy Day!

Illustration by Jordan Sondler for Oh Happy Day

This post does not have any information about credit card miles or upgrades or anything like that. I’ve never flown first class (not even once!) and I am not a fan of credit card programs so I know nothing about these things. I tried to get into it once but it was so complicated and gimmicky I gave up. So for now you’ll find me squished in the back with all the other coach flyers. (On that point, while I don’t mind being in Coach I am picky about direct flights, especially when flying with kids. I usually get direct flights or at the most one layover. Of course sometimes I make exceptions but usually if there isn’t a pretty direct flight to a location I don’t even consider it.)

I look for airfare a lot and I look early. About twice a week I spend 20 minutes or so looking at different airfare searches. I keep in mind my family’s schedules (Spring Break, Christmas Break, 4-day weekends, etc) I look for airfare in advance and buy it as early as I can, usually 3-7 months in advance.

The other thing is I am very flexible on where I want to travel. I recently read a quote that said something to the effect of “Travel is only expensive if it’s on demand.” If you’re willing to be flexible you can find deals. For example we’ve been talking about going somewhere for Christmas. In searching the only requirement for me (besides a good deal) is that it’s somewhere warm. I’ve run searches on pretty much the entire southern hemisphere: New Zealand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Argentina, Cuba, and Panama. I’ll look several times until I find something promising. I’ll also put feelers out for other motivations to visit a location. When we found cheap tickets to Norway the motivation to go was we found a family to do a home exchange with. Another time I found a really cheap and awesome airbnb in Mexico so that swayed us in that direction. For Spring Break a couple years ago we found $600 tickets to China and we quickly scooped them up because Paul’s brother had recently moved there and we had a good reason to visit. Flexibility is key.

It’s also important to remember that sometimes airfare is cheap but the hotels and cost of living are very expensive. For our honeymoon I found $300 tickets to Paris (I still brag about that one) the other option we considered were tickets to Brazil for $900. The clear choice to me was Paris but as soon as we started booking hotels we realized it would have been more affordable to get the expensive tickets to Brazil but stay in beautiful affordable beach cabanas versus cheap tickets to Paris and stay in expensive but small and cramped hotel rooms for two weeks. ALSO! Don’t forget that the budget airlines charge for EVERYTHING. Be very educated on their policies. Sometimes the pricing is similar to more traditional airlines when you consider checked bags and add-ons.

Search Engines:

I wish it were as simple as just saying “use xxx search engine to find the cheapest airfare.” The problem is there isn’t one engine that searches everything (even the small airlines) I’m guessing this is a proprietary partnership thing otherwise it would exist already) so it takes a little digging. It’s also very important they have either a low fare calendar or a “flexible dates” feature. Travelocity used to be my favorite site but they removed their flexible dates feature several years ago. I currently use for their low-fare calendar. My search process depends on what part of the earth I ‘m going to but here is my general process:

1. Check‘s low fare calendar – I try every location looking for something cheap and semi-direct.
2. Airfare Watchdog – These guys are pretty good at finding deals. I like to check their twitter feed from the last few days to see if they have anything interesting. Then I can go directly to the airline or do some searches on Kayak to find something similar.
3. Skyscanner – These guys have a lot of the smaller cheaper airlines (especially in Europe) We found cheap tickets to Norway and then looked on this site for affordable tickets to Italy and Malta.
4. Look for Specific Airline Routes nearby. I know there are a lot of airlines that fly through Oakland or even LA (we are based in San Francisco). Sometimes I check for airfare directly from LA. I found $500 tickets to Brazil that way and we were able to take a cheap/easy hopper flight down to LA to catch it.
5. Cheap Small Airlines. There are lots of smaller airlines with new routes popping up. I’ve had really good luck finding things with these airlines. Look specifically in the countries you are looking to go to. I know XL Airways has cheap direct flights from Paris to NYC, San Francisco, LA and Las Vegas. Practically no one has heard of this airline except my French friends. Their flights don’t show up in a lot of search engines. You would have to know to look directly on their site. Here is a list of small airlines (albeit sometimes unreliable) I’ve used:

For Mexico: Volaris and Viva Aerobus
For Scandinavia (and connections to all over Europe): Norwegian Air
For Asia: China Eastern Airlines

This is my entire bag of tricks. It’s all about knowing where to look, buying tickets early, being flexible and then spend time digging and looking around. I would love to hear if you’ve had good luck getting deals on airlines and if you have any tips.

  1. Leta

    August 18, 2015

    Airline website and fare comparison sites also use cookies, which basically save the destinations you’ve been searching. They use these cookies to slowly increase the price of fares you are shown, the more you search for it. I avoid this inflation by searching for flights in “incognito” or “private” browser windows. These modes prevent sites from saving cookies! Alternatively, you can just clear your search history, cache, and cookies after you do a fare search.

      • Bianca
      • August 18, 2015

      Wow, thanks for this tip!
      Great article Jordan!

    • I’ve found this to be true as well! Sometimes my husband and I’ll will do the same search on different laptops at the same time and get different prices. We attribute it to this reason!

      • Ellen
      • August 18, 2015

      Yes, this is my number 1 tip too!

      • J
      • August 19, 2015

      Wow, I had no idea! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Genevieve Brodeur

    August 18, 2015

    Hello :)
    Thank you for this article.
    I’m from Quebec City (Canada).
    I’m writting presently live in my car (we are returning home from our holidays passed in Florida, we are now in New York, go, go,go). After 4 summers in Florida, we need to move, to do a new location (we are five!). You have mentionned a home airbnb in Mexico. Is it possible to tell me exactly the place? Thank you very much :)

  3. Megan flowers

    August 18, 2015

    We just discovered the app called skiplagged. We found tix to Hawaii from LA for $300 round trip.

  4. jaclyn

    August 18, 2015

    I know Expedia has dropped out of favor with lots of travelers over the years but 12 years and at least 25 bookings later, I’m a tried and true Expedia girl.

    They don’t offer the convenient fare calendar so you do have to change the dates yourself to see if pricing is different from day to day but if you’re booking a flight and a hotel together, you seriously save so much money.

    MANY times, my husband and I have overheard other guests at our hotels lamenting about how much they paid for the rooms when we paid a FRACTION of those prices.

    Last year, we traveled to New Orleans and we got our hotel room for $120 and a gentleman in the lobby started chatting with my husband during check-in and tried to warn us that he didn’t think the hotel was worth the $600 dollar a night price. My husband assumed they had booked a nicer room than us but it turns out they were in the same room style as us!

      • Rachel
      • August 18, 2015

      Except, one needs to be careful about the package offers from Expedia and Orbitz and their refund guarantees if it ends up there’s a price lower elsewhere. We booked a hotel and flight together as a package a few years ago. A week later, the hotel price dropped in half. There was a guarantee on their site at the time that if you found your airfare or hotel cheaper, they refund the difference. However, in our case, it did not apply because the two items were booked together. If you’re sure you’ll never find anything cheaper, it’s a great deal, but if you’re not saving anything or very much to book the items independently, don’t tie them together in a package.

  5. Stephanie

    August 18, 2015

    Google Flights and the Flight Deal (especially its daily newsletter) are great resources as well!

  6. Bee

    August 18, 2015

    Hello & thanks! I was wondering how you could find a home exchange in Norway when you havent even considered yet this destination? My question is how do you manage to look at the same time for flights and accomodation when you dont really know where you will end up? Seems a wise idea byt must take lots of time doesnt it? I think card programs can be convinient if you plan national flights… Cheers! xx

  7. nikki ricks

    August 18, 2015

    Jordan! I’m so surprised you didn’t mention – it’s the only way we travel! You can filter your searches by price, “non-stop”, flight duration, weather, activities… etc. I’ve found tickets to Spain for $500 and Iceland for $650, Indonesia for $700 and South Africa for $850. (from Chicago) Also, once I nabbed tickets to Costa Rica for $280! It’s the greatest!! With a quick search it looks like you could take your family to Hong Kong for for Christmas $600. Or Florida for $300… I’m a little obsessed!

    • This *mayyyyyy* have just changed my life. This is the feature that I’m always asking my tech savvy Bay Area friends to see if there’s an “app for that” yet. Thank you for sharing!!

      • Erin
      • August 18, 2015

      Amazing! I use Kayak ALL the time and had no idea this feature existed. Life-changing indeed. Thanks so much!

    • Oh my goodness, this is AMAZING! Thank you for sharing.

    • Yes! Kayak explore is seriously my BEST friend!

  8. Em

    August 18, 2015

    Hitlist is a wonderful app, as is its companion browser plugin Wandertab. You make a list of places you want to travel to (in the app you scan through beautiful pictures of each place, clicking yes you want to go there or no you don’t), and when there’s a really great deal on tickets to a place you want to go hitlist will notify you. Wandertab takes the same information but when you open a new tab shows you a photograph with airfare. The LA Times just wrote an article about the latest update to the app, and The Next Web wrote about them last year when they were still pretty new.

  9. Sara

    August 18, 2015

    WOW! I didn’t know about XL Airways. I will have to check them out for future trips. We also bought tickets to visit Scandinavia via Norwegian Air. We got awesome rates and are flying for less than $1000 for two people! We’re not visiting Norway this trip but heading to Denmark and Stockholm. Thanks again for your travel tips. This is a great source of information. :)

  10. Viv

    August 18, 2015

    Love this article, thanks, Jordan! Where will you be heading next?

  11. Harpski

    August 18, 2015

    I have used these tips too, probably after your advice. When I’m searching I tend to keep multiple tabs open to skyscanner, kayak, and Rome2Rio which helps you see the air, sea, and land routes. This is particularly useful to budget travelers (me) who don’t mind a little more adventure. It also helps you understand public transit in any given area.

  12. Jem

    August 18, 2015

    Great tips, Jordan! I always buy my tickets off, and one thing that’s been working for me for years is very specific timing. Ticket prices the Tuesday afternoon six weeks from your departure date dip at least $100. On this day, I was able to buy one-way tickets from Boston to Sacramento for under $200, and round-trip tickets for my sister from Philadelphia to Sacramento for under $300. Not sure why that particular day is so different, but it works!

  13. Lauren O'Neill

    August 19, 2015

    Great tips, Jordan, and definitely some helpful pointers in the comments! I love using Hipmunk for initial flight searches. They sort by ‘agony’ — basically takes into account hassle, cost, timing, layovers, etc. I love this feature and they make it really easy to compare times visually, which is great for anyone left-brained. I also love their Option Away integration, which allows you to hold a ticket at a certain price for 24 hours for $5.

    I definitely second the cookies / browse in private mode tip + the Kayak explore feature. So many cool places to go!

  14. Jessica Doll

    August 19, 2015

    I fell in love with Kayak not too long ago too. I used to use Expedia all the time because it seemed so easy, but just found tickets for $1500 cheaper on Kayak! I couldn’t believe it. I also use incognito windows when searching.

  15. Krista L

    August 19, 2015

    I completely concur on the flexibility point. In the past couple of years, we’ve been able to travel to Bermuda ($330 RT from Canada), South Korea ($450 RT from Canada) and soon Panama ($450 RT from Canada) because we were flexible on destination and dates–and we also booked well in advance. It’s been a wonderful way to see the world, and see places we wouldn’t normally think to travel to!

    As Stephanie mentioned above, Google Flight Explore is hugely helpful as well! They recently upgraded their system and it’s a really powerful tool. I love the Kayak Explore suggestion–though I’ve been using Kayak for years, I never knew about this and it’s great! Thanks!

  16. Meredee

    August 19, 2015

    No mention of I love that you can filter by “agony”, so that long, multi layovers and high priced tickets drop out. Also, there are awesome airlines that don’t show up in the mass searches, like Virgin, JetBlue, Southwest. My husband and I were really happy we never became loyal to any one airline for points and rewards, it’s saved us from a lot of agony when traveling. Now that he travels for work, we are signed up for a couple of reward programs, but if there is a better option, it’s worth it to us to be disloyal.

  17. Erika

    August 21, 2015

    this is so helpful!! love this new blog post, thanks for posting xxxxxx

  18. Ashley P

    August 21, 2015

    There’s a newish app called Hopper that monitors trip dates and lets you know when prices have dropped and also gives lots of advice on when to book and how to save money. I like it because I don’t feel the need to check prices every few days. Hopper will just let me know! They also have a price forecast calendar and let you know what price point is a good deal for a given trip. I’m a Kayak girl through and through, but I find using the two together is really helpful.

  19. Pat Wilburn

    August 24, 2015

    Hi Jordan….72 year old grandma following you for years….love the travel posts….I wanted to pin this post to Pinterest but link didn’t work…..did I do something wrong?

  20. Ana

    August 28, 2015

    What has your experience been with XL airways?? I’m flying them on Thursday and have been a little nervous about some of the reviews I’ve read. Thanks!

  21. Kim

    August 28, 2015

    I like using Google Flights to search for flexible dates. Very simple, streamlined display which is a little more user friendly than Kayak. Great tips!

  22. airfare

    August 30, 2015

    Great article! One site I would like to add is
    Never miss a great deal or a secret flight offer!

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