Knowing how to find cheap flights is one of the biggest hurdles when planning a trip. Between that and your hotel stay, you may be left with very little in your vacation budget.
Not to mention the recent economic environment can make traveling a risky business, causing many people to avoid travel altogether. However, an industry that struggled the past two years with significant profit loss is now seeing the highest prices on airfare in the past five years.
Travel company Hopper released their Summer 2022 Travel Guide saying demand, fewer flights, and jet fuel prices have led to a trifecta, causing airline prices to increase as much as 34% compared to 2019.
Thankfully, one thing seems to have escaped the wrath of this invisible enemy – options for finding cheap airline tickets.
There are ways to get cheap and even free flights if you know what you're doing. If you don't, it's worth learning a few strategies. After all, the more you save on airfare, the more money you'll have to spend on your vacation.
Study up on the methods savvy travelers use for finding cheap airfare and avoid paying for high-priced tickets.
Anyone interested in travel should at least be familiar with how travel hacking works since you can save a substantial amount of money. It's the perfect union of frugality and travel.
Every major airline or hotel brand has its loyalty program, and loyalists can get rewarded with free flights and hotel stays. Free travel is usually dependent on the redemption cost. For example, an inexpensive 50-minute regional flight in coach will require significantly fewer points than a Trans-Pacific flight in business class.
Originally, the only way to accumulate these “loyalty” or “frequent flier” points was by consistently flying with these airlines or staying in these hotels. Things have changed, and currently, anyone can earn these frequent flier points by travel hacking.
Travel hacking is a well-known strategy for getting cheap or even free flights.
Whether you are a novice or an expert traveler, learning how travel hacking works is a great way to visit places at a fraction of the price you would otherwise have paid.
Southwest Airline Credit Card
When it comes to saving money on flights, Southwest Airlines is hard to beat. By signing up for one of their credit cards, you'll earn points you can use to book flights for free. (You'll still have to pay fees, but that's typically only $5.60 per domestic flight.)
What makes Southwest stand out from the rest is their Companion Pass. To get the Companion Pass, you'll either need to fly 100 flights per year, or earn 125,000 points. Since the average traveler won't reach either of those in a typical year, most people won't earn the Companion Pass on their own.
There's good news, though. You can “earn” the 125,000 points needed by applying for (and getting) two of the Southwest Airlines credit cards and earning the sign up bonuses. Once you've met the requirements, you'll not only have over 125,000 points to use to book free flights, you'll be able to take one companion with you on any flights you take in the next two years with no additional points needed.
In other words, your companion flies free anywhere you fly for the next two years!
Using airline credit card points to score free or cheap flights is the easiest way to book flights. If you want to travel, but don't have extra money to spend on tickets, you owe it to yourself to learn more about the best credit cards for free flights and hotels.
Worried about your credit score if you apply for a new credit card? Follow these tips for how to use a credit card wisely and not only will opening a credit card not hurt your score, it could even help it.
How To Find Cheap Flights
Top 3 Travel Search Engines
Advancements in technology have made searching for cheap airfare effortlessly simple. You can book travel to virtually every corner of the globe at a click of a button. Gone were the days of manually entering individual destinations and different dates. Frantically checking the web every day to score a deal is no longer necessary. Thanks to travel search engines!
Without a doubt, these travel websites have made life simpler for even the most casual tourist. Even so, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Many travel search engines regularly battle for our attention, and not knowing when a deal is good enough adds on to the mental burden. It can be exhausting overthinking whether the airfare you got was the best available.
This section will simplify the search process by narrowing down my recommendations to the three best travel search engines. All three are consistently highly regarded by budget travelers. These travel search engines are Momondo, Skyscanner, and Google Flights. Run your searches on these three websites, and sign up for their free alerts to increase your chances of seizing the best deal.
Momondo is one of the best online tools for finding cheap airfare. This search engine sifts through the entire web and ensures no stone is left unturned. Momondo even tracks obscure Online Travel Agencies (OTA) and relatively unknown budget airlines to grasp the best possible deal available. If you want deeply-discounted airfares, this should be your first stop.
Momondo also has an “Explore” option if you want ideas for where to fly cheaply. Type your home airport, enter “Anywhere” in the destination box (or a specific region, like South America), select a preferred date, or type “Anytime,” and wait for it to generate the cheapest flights at the most affordable times from your home airport.
Skyscanner still provides a fantastic jumping-off point when searching for incredible deals, even though it sometimes skips some lesser-known OTAs from its searches. It also has an app that is quite intuitive and easy to navigate.
Like Momondo, this perennial traveler favorite also allows searching for affordable destinations from your home airport. Enter your departure city, type “Everywhere” for your destination, and select “Cheapest Month.”
Next, compare your results with Momondo to ensure you are snatching the best fare. Eight out of 10 times, Momondo's airfare will come out cheaper by a few dollars.
This powerful search engine allows for ample customization, including pricing, flexible dates, and the ability to enter multiple airport codes or entire regions in the “Where From” and “Where to” search boxes.
Utilize Google Flights to identify cheaper nearby airports if flying direct is substantially more expensive. Doing so not only saves money it also allows you to add another city to your itinerary.
Despite its remarkable features, Google Flights' search engine is not as comprehensive as the other two. It only searches airlines and well-established OTAs (Orbitz, Expedia, etc.), therefore missing out on the budget selections. It is still a brilliant tool for identifying when and where the cheapest flight is. Just remember to always compare your results with Momondo and Skyscanner.
Pro Tip: Don't Forget To Check the Airline Website Directly
If you have a simple itinerary involving no more than two carriers, write down the airlines' names recommended by the search engines and then run an identical search on the respective websites. That may yield a slightly lower price.
Moreover, booking directly with the airline provides extra protection. They ordinarily have customer-friendly refund policies when they cancel a flight or change the schedule significantly.
If your search on a specific airline website did not result in a cheaper airfare, go back to the search engine that churned out the best price to purchase your ticket. Be mindful that any changes or cancellations using an OTA may result in a voucher that expires instead of a full refund. Although some OTAs have started offering refunds, the process can still be a lengthy ordeal. For added protection, consider purchasing travel insurance.
If you prefer to relax and let others do the legwork for you, you can subscribe to travel websites that prioritize scavenging for cheap flights and mistake fares online.
These websites have dedicated employees that closely monitor various travel search engines for dirt cheap plane tickets. Newsletters get immediately sent to their subscribers when deals get uncovered, so they don't miss out on these fantastic deals.
Curious what causes these error fares? They're usually the result of computer glitches that occasionally happen.
Since these flights are cheaper than cheap, you need to act on it the moment the deal enters your inbox as they ordinarily disappear very quickly. You have 24 hours to cancel your bookings if you change your mind.
Some of platforms require paid subscriptions, while others are free.
- Airfare Watchdog– FREE
- Secret Flying– FREE
- The Flight Deal– FREE
- TravelPirates – FREE
- Scott's Cheap Flights – PAID
- Thrifty Traveller– PAID
Other Strategies To Save More on Airfare
Know When Not to Fly
Flying during holidays, special events, and long weekends will be substantially pricier than flying at almost any other time of year. Departing early in the morning or taking a red-eye flight is usually cheaper than flying during the day.
Consider booking during off-peak periods for significant savings. Another tip is to fly the day after a holiday or during the holiday itself. Avoid flying the day before since that's when most people will be traveling.
Know When to Book
Unfortunately, there's no secret formula to know when it's the right time to book. Ticket prices seem to be primarily driven by demand. The more passengers are interested in flying on a specific route on a particular day, the more expensive the fares become.
One suggestion is not to wait until the last minute. It's common for airfare to become substantially more expensive to purchase the closer you are to your departure date.
On the other hand, booking far in advance may not yield the best price either. Unless you are travel hacking (and then booking 11 months out for award seats is the way to go), you're not likely to find cheap flights by booking too early.
Add a Free Stop-over if Flying Direct Is Pricier
If your schedule is flexible, searching Google Flights can help you identify alternative, cheaper airports near your final destination. Instead of flying direct to your originaly intended city, you can opt to fly to a nearby airport to save some cash.
Flying to these inexpensive airports also provides the traveler an opportunity to tack on a free stop-over. You can stay as long as you want in these more affordable hubs before continuing to the last leg of your trip, either via train or a budget airline.
For example, add a stop-over in Madrid for a few days if Barcelona's ticket costs at least $200 more. Not only is the train to Barcelona cheaper than an airline ticket would be, but you'll also get to spend some time in another city.
Find Cheaper Flights in Nearby Airports
Depart or arrive at a nearby airport. For example, substantial metropolitan areas such as NYC, Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco, are located near three international airports. Make sure you run your flights across all possible options.
Some Airlines Offer Free Stopovers
Certain airlines offer irresistible free stopover promotions to entice tourists to visit their home country. IcelandAir is one of the most generous as it allows passengers to stopover in the country for up to 7 days before embarking on their final destination.
For example, Icelandair allows travelers a free seven-day layover when flying between the U.S. and Europe. This essentially allows two vacations for the price of one airfare ticket.
Utilize the Explore Option
Sometimes you're up for a travel adventure but aren't sure where to go. In that case, why not let the search engine decide for you? Each of the top sites (mentioned above) has the “explore” option, which is the perfect solution for travelers who are undecided about their next destination. A great way to find cheap flights is to start with a blank slate.
Enter your departure city and type “everywhere” or “anywhere” in the destination field, fill out your preferred dates, and let them point you to your next frugal vacation.
Being flexible with your dates and destination is the secret formula to finding the cheapest airfare possible.
One-way Versus Round-trip
Booking round-trip almost always yields cheaper airfares than booking two separate one-ways, but this trend is changing, so always compare how much two separate one-ways and one round-trip flight cost.
On rare occasions, booking round-trip tickets can be cheaper even if you only need to fly one way. When this happens, pick the cheapest round-trip ticket, fly, and skip your return flight after reaching your final destination.
Open-Jaw bookings may yield cheaper airfare compared to two one-ways. Open-Jaw flights are similar to round-trip flights, except that the airports may differ on each leg.
There are three variations: Destination Open-Jaw is when there are two destinations (SFO – Rome / Venice – SFO). Origin Open-Jaw is when the flight will return to another city other than where the passenger came from (SFO-Rome / Rome-LAX). Double Open-Jaw is when all the cities change (SFO-Rome / Milan-LAX).
Booking open-jaw saves you valuable time from backtracking and can save you some money if an alternative flight is cheaper than a typical round-trip flight.
You would need to use a multi-city search for open-jaws. Again, don't forget to compare the cost between two separate one-ways and one open-jaw booking.
Book for One Person
If traveling with a group of friends, try to book individual tickets instead of booking for all. It is not uncommon that ticket prices will be lower if booked individually.
Periodically, airlines offer different fares for the same flight, depending on demand. So, booking ahead can capture those “saver” fares, but there might only be a limited number of seats at that price. If you try to book your whole party at once, you may be charged the higher rate since there weren't enough sale price tickets for everyone.
If you're traveling as a couple or a family try to book one person at a time and see what this approach churns out. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Although it involves a little effort, try to maximize the 24-hour free cancellation window. After booking cheap airfares, keep monitoring the various travel websites in the next 24 hours to see if a cheaper flight surfaces.
If you find a better deal within 24 hours, you can cancel the original booking for free and book the new one.
Pay With Local Currency
Compare paying in USD and the local currency. For example, a flight booked between Chile and Patagonia shows to be $450 USD. Yet, if you are in Chile when booking the flight and choose to pay using local currency, the ticket is only $150.
When making these ” international ” bookings, don't forget to use a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees when making these “international” bookings.
Fly Budget Airlines
Budget airlines in certain regions are a dime a dozen and are too many to list here. A great starting point would be to search at Momondo, as that engine appears to capture fares from a wide range of budget airlines.
A word of caution, though, please read the fine print thoroughly. Airlines tack on hidden fees to these inexpensive tickets all the time. Landing a cheap airfare on a budget airline does not always mean it is inherently cheaper. Be prepared to sit in the middle seat and use only a carry-on if you want to avoid paying for these extras.
Sometimes, it is less costly to pay for services upfront versus paying at the last minute. For example, some airlines charge more for checked luggage if you wait until you get to the airport than they do if you pay at the time of booking. Veitjet, a budget airline in Vietnam, charges $75 per checked bag vs. only $25 for prepaid baggage.
Tactics To Earn Free or Partially Free Flights
Volunteer Your Seat
If you have a lot of flexibility and time, I suggest giving up your seat whenever they ask for volunteers. Holidays and long weekends are the prime time for these goldmines.
U.S. flights typically offer a guaranteed seat on the next flight plus a voucher for a future flight. The amount varies from several hundred to $1,000 or even more. European airlines will pay you cash instantly by depositing money to your debit or credit card at the gate.
Write the Airline
If your trip didn't meet your expectations or you encountered inconveniences along the way, you can always reach out to customer service and share your grievance.
You can write about delayed/lost luggage, flight delays, missed connections, canceled flights, dysfunctional inflight entertainment systems, involuntary downgrades such as getting assigned to a middle seat when you prepaid for the aisle, etc. They typically compensate with a voucher that you can use on your next flight.
Flight interruptions due to natural causes such as inclement weather are generally not eligible for compensation, but it would not hurt to try.
As the famous quote asserts, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”
On the flip side, travel also has the potential to make anyone poorer. If we are not careful about our travel spending habits, it can certainly burn a hole in our wallets.
Navigating the multiple options available can be daunting, but the frugal strategies outlined in this post can assist you in confidently purchasing cheap airfare without breaking the bank.
The more money you save, the more money you can divert to your travel funds. After all, traveling should never create a financial burden on anyone.
What destinations are on your bucket list?
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
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I am Kris. San Francisco Bay Area Transplant from the Philippines. My life is devoted to globe-trotting -- exploring every nook & cranny of this world of ours in the most frugal of ways by using miles and points. I have visited a total of 85 countries on 6 continents. Feel free to follow my adventures at The Frugal Tourist.