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A long time ago in ye olde pre-internet times, I was in sales for a leading tour operator. My job was to advise travel agents on our tours so they could talk to their customers about it as part of their trip consulting.
If a traveler called us for advice on our toll-free travel agent hotline, we actually had to direct them to a travel agent instead of helping them.
That’s how layered the industry was. Times have changed, though.
No longer content to hear the clicking of someone else’s fingernails on a keyboard working some mysterious screen, the flying public demands the freedom to check their own routes and prices to find cheap flights.
Cheap Flights Online: 10 Things to Know
Here, we’ve put together a helpful guide to use when you want to be your own travel agent and find the best fares and itineraries.
But be warned: After following our flight booking tips, you’ll get so good at it, your friends may expect the same services for their travels.
1. Booking Flights in Advance
If you want to know how best to book flights online, the first rule is to plan as far as in advance as possible. Fares may drastically increase in price as you approach the departure date.
Aim for within three months to 30-days from departure.
Use Kayak’s price predictor that follows price trends to let you know if prices for that route tend to increase, decrease, or remain stable.
They are not 100% accurate, but Kayak does use real data for their tool to help you find cheap flights.
If you are particular about where you sit (aisle vs. window, bulkhead vs. exit row, and so on), then booking early will likely get you your preferred seat.
On high travel dates, flights will fill up quickly and if you wait, you may end up in the back of the plane by the lavatories.
Or, just as bad, you’ll have to pay a premium to get a seat toward the front, which is ridiculous because all the seats are going to the same place.
Something else you’ll want to get early is travel insurance to protect your cheap flight against cancellations or changes you didn’t anticipate.
TravelInsurance.com is a great carrier and we recommend looking at their coverage.
2. Price Alerts
One of the best booking flights tips we can share is how to set up fare alerts so they go to your phone or your email.
This is great if you have a route or destination in mind and you want to be notified of a cheap flight.
Even a small discount can add up to big savings if you’re buying tickets for the whole fam.
There are a couple of ways to do this.
Scott’s Cheap Flights
Get flight deals emailed to you multiple times a day for free. Sign up for free and select your preferred U.S. departure airport. The larger and busier your airport, the more deals you’ll get.
Instead, you go to the airline directly which is great if you don’t like the extra layer of another website between you and the carrier.
Upgrade to an affordable paid membership and get better deals like cabin specials, weekend fares, and mistake pricing where the wrong fares are listed.
Dollar Flight Club
Dollar Flight Club is similar to Scott’s Cheap Flights in that they are both subscriptions that send flight deals to your inbox.
Both have free forever plans with options to upgrade for a more personalized experience.
The difference comes down to how Dollar Flight Club finds cheap flights. They use automated technology to gather data from the web to find the cheapest flights.
They also have an easy-to-use app!
This is one of our favorite online booking websites because you can set up a price alert to ping you on your phone or email you about a cheap flight.
It’s free to set up and you can stop them at any time on Skyscanner. Create as many as you want to capture those deals from other airports you can use or are flexible on when you can go.
Use the search box to find a flight to your preferred destination. Choose a date or month, then when the results come up, select “Get Price Alerts.”
Follow the instructions and soon you’ll see notifications arriving by email or phone notifications if you have their great app.
Set a price alert and get notified of any fluctuations. Google Flights is free and easy and you only need a Google account.
You can even see trends in a graph mode which thrills me as a lover of all things data. It’s a simple way to find a cheap flight.
The best way to book flights without breaking the bank is by being flexible with your travel dates and time.
Ticket prices can fluctuate greatly from day to day and month to month. Holiday travel is as expensive as it gets.
Summer too is a very expensive season for flying because that’s when families take vacations.
So if you want to snag a cheap flight, you’ll need to stay away from the winter holidays and most of the summer.
The good news is that not only will you find cheap flights off-season, but your destination will be less crowded and hotels will be cheaper.
Go ahead and plan that dream trip to Bolzano or Madrid. Just fly in the spring or fall when it’s much cheaper, cooler, and a lot less crowded.
Also, consider flying in the middle of the week and leave the weekends to the folks with champagne vacation budgets.
And if you need to fly for a holiday, you’ll find the cheapest flights in the early morning or red-eyes. Not ideal, but cheap!
Show that same flexibility with your destination too. Use the Everywhere tool on Skyscanner to explore the cheapest flights to anywhere in the world and make your decisions that way.
Finally, changing airports can save you money with a cheap flight. Many cities have secondary airports that don’t cost as much money as the big international ones.
If you’re flying into a hugely popular destination, it may make more financial sense to fly into a nearby city and then rent a car or find other transportation to the giant magical mouse-land.
Bottom line: You’ll save money if you remain open-minded about where and when you go!
4. Connecting flights
One way is to filter flight deals on search engines by the number of connecting flight options. The more connections there are, the more likely it’s a cheap flight.
Another way is to make your own itinerary. Some routes you’ll expect a transfer – say most departures in the continental U.S. to Hawaii or Alaska when most of the routes involve a layover in California or Washington.
Check to see if you can book the flights separately – DFW to LAX, then LAX to Honolulu (HNL) on a separate itinerary. Don’t worry about using the same airline. In fact, you should focus on the small or regional budget airlines that fly those routes every hour.
But do worry about tight layovers! Check the gates and terminals and consider how much time you’re giving yourself to get from one to the other.
The savings could be significant. This works crazy well if you’re spending a night or two in your connecting city (great for international flights).
And if you’re not, then you’ll want to just have a carry-on bag or you run the risk of getting separated from your luggage which is not worth a cheap flight. Another way is using Skiplagged which lists connecting flights where you can use one leg to get to your destination and leave the other leg unused.
It can be cheaper to fly that way. Look, don’t feel bad the airline people put the route together like this. But you can definitely take advantage of it when it happens.
See Related: How to Get Free Flights
5. Discounted Flights
Now you know when to book flights. But where are the real discounts? Try discount airlines, otherwise known as low-cost carriers.
Southwest and Jet Blue are typically safe bets as budget airlines offer good customer service and convenient routes to popular destinations at savings.
Then there are the ultra low-cost carrier budget airlines…
The important thing to remember when using these types of budget airlines is to read reviews about their services.
Some of them may cost you in stress levels even if they do help you save money on a cheap flight.
For example, some airlines offer cheap flight tickets because they cram more passengers in the cabin. It’s uncomfortable but still cheap.
So you’re cutting into your experience a bit. But if Europeans can use budget airlines, we can too, gosh darn it!
Here are some other things to know about using ultra low-cost airline tickets.
Low-cost carriers typically charge passengers for services other airlines normally include in the price of the ticket.
Some budget airlines charge for baggage, both checked and carry-on bags. You also have to pay if you want to select your seat in advance or an inflight snack.
Often they have limited availability on alternate flights if yours gets canceled or if you need to change your dates.
You need to also consider if the airport they fly into is convenient since many of them use secondary airports which are cheaper to fly into.
Finally, no one is handing out awards for customer service at the ultra low-cost carriers.
See Related: How to Cheap Cheap Last Minute Flights
6. The Best Cheap Flights Websites
Otherwise known as third-party websites, these portals let you compare airline prices for cheap flight tickets without leaving the site.
You should check more than one of these sites, including the airline website, so you know you are finding the best flight deals before you book.
Another tip: Southwest Airlines fares are only listed on their website with a few exceptions.
Here are the ones we like to use to find our cheap flights:
Best for flexibility with their “Everywhere” search. You can search for the best flight deals even when you don’t know or care where you go on Skyscanner.
Best for finding the most budget airlines and their cheap flights. The Kayak success rate in finding cheap flights is higher than most other booking websites.
Best for offering a generous cancellation window. With Priceline, you can cancel up until 11:29 pm eastern time on the next business day after purchase.
Meaning if you buy your ticket just after midnight on Friday, you’ll have until 11:29 pm Monday night to cancel it completely. Frontier and Spirit are the only exceptions.
Best for searching multiple destinations and listing baggage fees along with cheap flight tickets.
Expedia also has a loyalty program where you earn a reward point for every $5 you spend on a flight.
Best for including non-U.S.-based carriers in their 24-hour cancellation policy. Most booking websites only do that for U.S. carriers.
You should still check the policy of your exact flight in case it’s strictly non-refundable as per the airline.
Hotwire also offers a low price guarantee so if you find a lower rate on an identical flight, they will pay you the difference which is great when you’re looking for the cheapest flights.
Best for having a rewards program and 24-hour prior to departure cancellation policy.
Their rewards program is free to join and earn Orbucks which you can then redeem booking hotels on Orbitz.
Another great feature is the ability to cancel flights in the app up to 24-hours in advance of departure.
Best for having a low-fare calendar as a booking tool. If you are flexible on your dates, CheapOair.com lets you see the prices of flight tickets across two months in a calendar.
You can then click on a date that looks good and see the flight deals. It isn’t available for all the flights, but it’s a cool money-saving tool if you can use it.
Best if you need extra support available when flying. Ever wish you had a customer service agent on speed dial when you fly, especially internationally?
With Travofy, you have the option of paying for speedy and responsive customer service to be on call for you while you travel.
Best for transparent price quotes. Trip.com is great about clearly disclosing fees for baggage, changes, cancellations, and other typically hidden fees.
They have responsive customer service that you can call too.
It’s a little controversial, but when it works, you can save a bundle.
See Related: Skiplagged Review 2023: Is It Safe and Legit?
Best for finding cheap flights to major destinations. Booking.com’s search results are easy to decipher and you can see all the different options based on price, flight time, and carrier.
So if you’re traveling to a big city and you know there will be way too many options and sorting through them all will give you a migraine? Use Booking.com.
Best for having a slick website! OneTravel has an attractive website that’s easy to use to find cheap flights seamlessly.
7. Airline Specials
Last-minute flight deals can give you big savings if you’re willing to be spontaneous. Airlines don’t like to fly with empty seats.
They may be willing to stick a low fare on them just to fill them.
Or if it’s a new route they’re trying to promote, they may run a sale on flights that aren’t during the middle of the night.
You can create a Google flights alert to notify you by email when an airline is having a fare sale or promoting a new route with a press release.
8. Travel Rewards
It may seem daunting, but people fly for free all over the world because they use a travel reward credit card to earn points.
Sign up for one, understand the rules about earning and redeeming points, hit their minimum spending limit, and grab their signing bonus points.
Sometimes, the bonus is enough for free flights almost immediately. There are a couple of different types of cards.
One type called co-branded airline miles credit cards, earn you points for a particular airline.
Or you can get a more general card that allows you to earn and redeem points with partner airlines.
Redeem your points through the credit card travel portal or transfer them directly to partner airlines–good for when you are saving them up for a particular trip.
Delta Skymiles Blue by American Express is a good option for infrequent flyers. There is no annual fee and the rewards program is a solid one.
You earn 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $500 with your card in the first 3-months. Here are some other perks:
- 2X Miles per dollar at restaurants worldwide, and on takeout and delivery in the U.S.
- 2X Miles per dollar spent on purchases on Delta and 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.
- Use your Miles to take up to $50 off your flight for every 5,000 miles you redeem with Play With Miles on delta.com.
- Get a 20% credit after you use your card on eligible in-flight purchases of food, drinks, and headsets on your Delta flights.
It’s best if you use your travel rewards card on as many purchases as you can so you can rack up miles fast.
Be sure to pay your balance each month so you’re not using your flight savings on interest or fees. Redeeming your points on any rewards program depends on the card you carry.
You’ll find instructions online or in your welcome information about how to log on to their travel portals to book flight tickets with your points.
An easy way to keep up with how many miles you’re collecting if you’re using multiple rewards programs is with this award wallet.
More flight booking tips: Most reward cards waive the baggage fees for some or all of your bags if you use the card to pay for the flight.
Check the policies of your rewards program because that is big money.
And if you fly internationally, you can get your Global Entry fee reimbursed so you can skip the security lines that cut into your fun time and patience.
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- About the Author
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Jen is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a background in hospitality and tourism. Her specialties include sales and marketing technology and travel content. When she isn’t on assignment, Jen catches up on her many newsletter subscriptions, watches nocode tutorials, and spends time with her family.