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.
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.
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 Kayak.com 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 Kayak.com‘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:
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.