Let’s face it: flights can be one of the most expensive parts of any journey. Finding cheap flights has never been more difficult.
The travel industry is no longer in the recovery stage. Indeed, airlines are seeing traffic like they never have before. If you’ve read our article on why flights are so expensive right now, you know that world conditions have created a cocktail for expensive travel prices!
Cheap airfare tickets? It might seem like they’re a thing of the past.
However, don’t put away that cheap flight-finding motivation just yet. Flight deals are still out there and can be found if you know where, when, and how to look. Cheap airfare may be harder to come by, but that’s all the more reason to be fully aware of how to find some for yourself.
Most of the internet guides we’ve seen on how to find the cheapest flights aren’t super-helpful in this day and age. The truth is that finding the cheapest airline tickets, the process isn’t as cut and dry as many make it seem. You have to be creative, flexible, and willing to go back and forth between steps as your search evolves.
That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive, complete, and easy-to-follow guide of our own to find cheap flights. There are countless steps to make sure you get the best flight deal, and we’ve organized them here in three parts.
- Part 1 deals with getting creative with your dates and destinations,
- Part 2 is all about the airlines and the specifics of your travel, and
- Part 3 will help you be confident about the purchase and finally fly to your destination.
Note that truly locating the cheapest flights is a very dynamic process. While our step-by-step guide is organized, the cheapest flight often comes from repeating steps, often several times over. Be sure to dive in deep and really get a deal. Follow these tips and your next trip is sure to be saved from the sky-high flight prices infecting the travel world. Good luck!
Part 1: Dates & Destinations
Well, you have to start somewhere, and logically it’s with your dates and destinations. But this first part is where most travelers ruin their chances of finding cheap flights: the truth is, you should try to keep both as flexible as possible.
Of course, you have to have an idea of where you want to go somewhere and when you want to go. But with rigid boundaries like this, you are at the mercy of the flight prices for those days and places. You’ll have to be really lucky to score a flight deal on the exact dates and routes you want.
Instead, start with an idea of dates and destinations that you want to visit. Do your search broadly with the steps below, and don’t ask for time off from work until you’ve found your ideal trip- not the other way around!
Flight Search Engines
You must familiarize yourself with a search engine for flights to save yourself an exponential amount of time and headaches. Rather than going site to site by each individual airline, use one of these lifesavers to search nearly all airlines at once, over huge amounts of time, and even multiple destinations.
As mentioned, the huge advantage to these search engines is the fact that they display fares for every airline possibly operating on the route, allowing you to quickly find the cheapest ones. They also return fares from most of the online travel agencies selling the ticket, in case there is a better deal via a third party like Expedia.
We’ll get more specific below, but these sites are also your best friends for their abilities to search with flexible dates and destinations and to include nearby airports. These are the tools that are essential to finding cheaper flights than you would with the old-fashioned way.
See Related: Kayak.com Review: Is Kayak Legit?
Flexibility in Dates
Now that you know where to go for the best deals, you’ll need to show some flexibility with your travel dates to save money.
Everyone has varying levels of flexibility, and it won’t always be possible to consider alternative dates. But if you can, this is one way to save a lot of money when booking flights.
Even if your vacation dates are already set and confirmed, consider flying out a day later or coming back a day earlier within that period.
Yes, you may lose some precious vacation time, but you could literally save hundreds. It’s up to you if that is worth it or not, but I find that it often is- use that saved money on a nicer hotel room!
On sites like Skyscanner and Kayak, you have the awesome option to view flight prices in a grid format. Rather than searching all those alternative dates, just select the plus or minus buttons for however many days are appropriate for you. Kayak even highlights the cheapest combinations in green for you.
If you have a huge range of flexibility and you aren’t decided on a particular time to travel, Kayak also shows you the cheapest times to fly by color-coding the calendar before you even click Search. Keep an eye out for the green days to make sure it’s one of the cheapest flight dates found.
Skyscanner has the same functionalities, and you can elect to search by entire month or even the cheapest month found. Just change the search option when you click on your dates.
Don’t forget that it’s often most expensive to fly towards the end of the week, around holidays, and around special events. Are you planning a trip to Dubai?
Then you might not be aware that they have different weekends, nor do you know about their holidays and special events taking place. Expanding your search will allow you to figure that out and make sure your flights work around them to save money.
Whether you have the flexibility to choose your period of travel based on the cheapest time of year or you can simply afford to go a few days forward or backward, having some extra room in your travel dates can save you hundreds.
Flexibility in Destinations
To go right along with being flexible in your travel dates, you should also be as flexible as possible with destinations. Don’t worry, I’m not necessarily suggesting you be open to dropping your dream vacation!
Let’s start with an easy but important functionality that is vital to making sure you get cheap deals no matter where you are flying. All quality search engines will have an option to search nearby airports, which can make a massive difference.
We don’t always know what the alternative airports are at a destination, especially if it is somewhere completely new to us. But flying into a secondary airport in a city can have a huge impact on flight prices. The operating costs are lower for airlines, and those savings are often passed on to us.
A classic example would be someone flying from New York to London, the world’s most profitable air route. In an example in Skyscanner below, I’ve input JFK to Heathrow, which are the main airports in each place that most people would know.
By simply checking the little box below each of them, I am now searching departures from JFK, Newark, Laguardia, Stewart, and more for arrivals to Heathrow, Gatwick, London City, Stansted, Luton, Southend… you get the idea.
Multiple Cities & Airports
While that’s an easy addition to your search, there is a way to get even more creative when it comes to destinations. This will depend on what stage of your vacation planning you are in, but can also work even if you have a specific final destination in mind.
You may simply want to be on a beach in Europe and are open to different ideas. If you try searching for places like Mallorca, Croatia, and the Greek Islands, you won’t be happy with the prices you see.
However, try somewhere without a beach like Milan or Berlin, and you may be shocked at the difference. Add the fact that budget airlines fly between these major cities and top European seaside spots, and you may have just found yourself a cheap beach vacation along with the bonus of a day in a new city.
Kayak and Google Flights have a wonderful function that allows you to input multiple arrival airports, or even cities, in one search. Just keep adding them in the search bar to find the cheapest among all of them.
Below, I’ve input the airports of Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza. All are Spanish Balearic Islands with amazing beaches, and all are within a quick and cheap ferry or flight between each other. Even if you are dead set on one, it could be very worth your while to fly to another and use it for cheap airfare.
Alternative airports and getting creative with your destinations are key to getting cheap tickets. Don’t be afraid to try interesting combinations and questionable routings to get a deal- you may just end up adding a new, cool stop on your travels!
See Related: Cheapest Places to Fly Around the World
One-Way, Round-Trip, & Multi-City Flights
This tip may be surprising to many people who are used to simply plugging in round-trip searches. In fact, you can often score the cheapest flight deals by using a combination of one-way or multi-city tickets.
A round-trip ticket is often no problem and may very well turn out to be the least expensive option in many cases. But the problem with this is that you will be limited to the same airline group on all legs. This causes some constrictions that can lead to higher fares.
For example, let’s imagine a trip from San Francisco to Tahiti. A round-trip ticket will have you on Hawaiian Airlines, United, or French Bee. The problem is that each of these airlines only flies to Tahiti a limited number of days each week. If you choose the wrong departure or return date for your round-trip ticket, you will be stuck with sky-high fares.
If you try entering one-way segments for each leg, you may end up finding the cheapest price on separate airlines for your departure and your return. In our example, United’s direct flight to SFO on Sundays may be the lowest outbound, while French Bee might offer a sweet deal for your return. Combine this with our tip above on flexible dates, and you’ve got yourself a budget trip to French Polynesia– a hard thing to come by!
Searching one-way is simple enough, right? Just note that there are a few downsides to this. When you book multiple segments, your reservations are not connected and are at risk in case of a cancellation. This means that if your outbound flight gets canceled, and you decide that the trip is no longer worth taking, you won’t be entitled to a refund for the return.
See Related: How to Use Momondo to Find Cheap Flights
There is a solution to this in some cases: multi-city tickets. This strategy involves booking various segments all on the same reservation, protecting your ticket, and keeping the trip organized. The best part is that this strategy often lowers the fare for you exponentially because the airline is happy to keep you on more of their flights.
Multi-city ticketing is especially useful if you have multiple destinations within your trip already but can also work if you are simply trying to find the cheapest fare. Let’s take our trip above from San Francisco to Tahiti as an example.
Perhaps you decide that you want to add a quick few days on Waikiki Beach to that trip, or you simply want to see if a connecting flight in Honolulu would be cheaper to get you back to SFO.
As you will often find, it is an incredible deal to book with multi-city ticketing! The deal we found above is exponentially lower than a one-way segment to Papeete and another to Honolulu. Plus, being on the same ticket will get you the two free checked bags the whole way that Hawaiian Airlines offers.
To get back to San Francisco, you have the huge advantage of nearly every major US airline operating flights from Honolulu on the route. That means prices should be low and options plentiful.
Don’t forget to search Southwest Airlines separately on their website, as they do not allow their fares to be displayed on the travel search engines (and you’ll enjoy keeping the trend of two free checked bags!).
As we’ve mentioned, finding the cheapest flights is a process, so don’t hesitate to go back and forth between dates, destinations, one-way’s, and multi-city to make sure you are getting the best deal in the end.
Using Points & Miles for Free Flights
This has to be my all-time favorite time for getting the best flight deal- because the best deal is a free ticket! There are few things more satisfying than using just the right amount of points and miles to save hundreds or thousands on your trip cost.
I have met so many people who think that it’s just impossible for them to accumulate the thousands of points needed to actually use them, but that’s false. You should indeed sign up for every frequent flier program that applies to the flights you take, to be sure that you are awarded miles for them, but there is an easier way.
Credit cards have the wonderful concept of sign-up bonuses, which can run into hundreds of thousands of points. All you need to do is meet a minimum spending requirement within the first few months, depending on the offer.
If you are planning a trip anyway, and do a normal amount of grocery shopping and gas-filling, hitting these minimums should be no problem. There is no reason to go out of your way to spend extra money. As long as you apply for these cards wisely, you can hit these massive bonuses with regular spending.
Our favorite cards are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the American Express Platinum Card, both of which earn their own points currencies that can be used on almost any travel purchase. Both are also known for their incredibly generous sign-up bonuses.
Besides those, there are also co-branded cards offered by nearly every major airline. United, Delta, American, and Southwest are some that come to mind. Every time you make a purchase with any of these cards, you are earning miles on that airline. That adds up!
Best of all is that all of these cards come with extra perks such as rental car insurance, lost luggage protection, and no foreign transaction fees. This all makes them essential components of a traveler’s wallet.
I could go on for days about travel credit card strategies, and I will discuss them more in Part 3. This is one of the greatest ways to offset expensive flight prices!
See Related: Amex Points vs Chase Points: Which is Better?
Let Someone Else Find the Cheapest Flights For You
Here is another fantastic way to save your money on flights, and your time as well. There are a few services that exist with the mission of finding the cheapest flight deals out there, for everywhere going anywhere.
They can take the search off your hands for you; especially great for the busy person who doesn’t know when to find cheap flights during their day. Even if you don’t fall into this category, signing up for a site like this will at least allow you to focus your time on finding cheap hotels and cars instead.
We have three favorites when it comes to flight deal websites: Scott’s Cheap Flights, Dollar Flight Club, and Thrifty Traveler. All are staffed by people who are dedicated to finding the world’s best deals for flights. Their task is to constantly search various departure airports to all destinations.
All you need to do is sign up and tell them what departure airport or airports you are located near. When they find an amazing deal that matches up with your city, they will notify you immediately. It’s just up to you to decide if you want to grab it or not.
One of the best parts of their services is the access to mistake fares that come with premium memberships. If you’ve ever tried to find airline error fares, you know that it is an exhausting process. But when they do pop up, we are talking about discounts in the 90% ranges at times.
Rather than doing that hard work yourself, these flight deal-finders will notify you the moment they spot what they believe to be an error fare. If you’ve read our article about mistake fares, you know you have to act very fast- so this access is priceless.
Scott’s, Thrifty Traveler, and Dollar Flight Club could save you a ton of time and money back when cheap flights were easier to come by. Nowadays, they should be one of your favorite tools during times of record-high flight prices.
See Related: Dollar Flight Club Review: Is It Worth It?
Part 2: Airlines & Trip Specifics
Now that we’ve covered the initial search for a trip, you might have a potential trip in mind or a rough idea of where you are going. The work isn’t over yet, but it will now get a bit more specific.
We used some pretty creative strategies to find a great deal, and now it’s time to make sure that those strategies pay off in actual savings. You would not want to have gone through all that work only to spend way too much money on the actual journey.
In the next step, we will make sure that the cheap flight you’ve found (or that Scott’s, Thrifty, or DFC found for you) is indeed the discount you’ve been longing for. Follow these tips to make sure that’s the case.
See Related: Scott’s Cheap Flights Review: Is It Worth It?
Get To Know the Different Airlines You Are Choosing From
Whether you’ve narrowed it down to a single great deal on a specific airline or you have the luxury of choosing between several, always do your research before buying the ticket. Knowing your inclusions and choosing strategically can save you even more.
These specifics will vary from airline to airline, so we won’t be able to mention them all here. But here are a few examples of the types of things to look out for.
We mentioned above that Hawaiian Airlines generously includes two free checked bags on all international routes. If you are choosing between a direct trip on United or Delta to somewhere like New Zealand or Australia, you might seriously want to consider a short layover in Honolulu to save hundreds on luggage. The same goes for Southwest Airlines on any route they fly- two bags always fly free.
If you are headed across the pond to Europe, you have plenty of airlines to choose from. You’ll often find that flights to cities like Milan and Athens are served by many carriers at around the same price point.
These two cities in particular, among some others, are also served by luxury airlines such as Emirates on routes known as fifth freedoms- when an airline flies between two points both outside its home country. Emirates economy class isn’t even comparable to what you will find on US airlines, so if the price isn’t very different, why not take advantage of a bit of luxury?
If you are traveling within the US, keep in mind that United no longer allows a full-size carry-on bag on most of its domestic routes. That will be an extra cost.
If seating is important to you, remember that Southwest doesn’t assign seats at all. This could be an advantage if you don’t mind checking in as early as possible, or a disadvantage if you are seriously concerned about getting stuck in the middle.
As mentioned, these are just some examples of the things to look out for when it comes to your airline of choice. If there are some things that you simply cannot tolerate, or will cost you extra in the end, you will have to weigh out the worth of your cheap flight tickets in comparison.
Utilize Budget Airlines Wisely
Our tips can get you cheap tickets and choosing budget airlines can sometimes get you even cheaper tickets. Low-cost airlines are those that are openly no-frills, bare-bones, and pay-for-everything-extra.
While that may not sound very appealing, the truth is that budget airlines can indeed save you a ton of money if utilized properly. Their cheap fares are certainly eye-catching but should be scrutinized to be sure that it is truly a deal.
Budget airlines fly all over the world, but you will most often find that short-haul flights are their main markets. In the US we have Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier, to name a few. European budget carriers include Ryanair, Easyjet, and Wizz Air among others.
While a $10 international flight from Italy to Greece may seem like a no-brainer, weigh out all of the costs first. Do you need a checked bag or even a normal-sized carry-on? That will add to the price. Do you mind not having food or drink onboard? If so, you’ll need to pay. Does the flight involve a secondary airport that requires more ground transportation? Check the costs.
When all is said and done, this can still absolutely turn out to be your cheapest option. I just returned from a trip to Greece, where I paid $10 for a Wizz Air flight from Milan to Athens.
In reality, I paid the $10 fare, plus $13 for a full-sized carryon, plus $17 for a train ticket to Milan; totaling $40 per person. This is still an amazing deal! The price to fly from my home airport of Nice (France) was $175 one-way – also proving our point about experimenting with departure cities.
Don’t forget that most budget airlines are completely inflexible with ticket changes and have hard-to-reach customer service desks. If all of this is fine with you, don’t hesitate to use them to get significantly cheaper tickets.
See Related: Ways to Find Cheap Flights to Europe
Layovers, Airports, and Visas
We already know that it can be much cheaper to fly indirectly via layovers rather than nonstop flights. Often, this may involve long layovers which may even be overnight – especially if you take advantage of multi-city ticketing as described before.
Know that this can add expenses to your trip where you don’t expect it. Be sure to budget properly for this to ensure your flight deal is still a deal.
In simplest terms, remember that you may need to buy (expensive) airport food on long layovers. If you have an overnight stop, you will need to budget for a hotel stay; unless you don’t mind sleeping on metal chairs or the floor. Personally, I find that a hotel is always worth it.
To save on food during layovers, check to see if you have a credit card that offers a free Priority Pass membership. Priority Pass is a great program that allows you several entries to airport lounges around the world per year, and it is included in many travel cards – such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the American Express Platinum cards we mentioned before.
Finally, consider whether your layover country requires a visa for you to enter. This will be necessary if you are leaving the airport to go to a hotel for the night, and visas can have a hefty cost. This includes countries like Australia and Canada which don’t require true visas from US passport holders but do require an electronic registration with a fee.
See Related: Best Airports for Layovers Around the World
Are You Going Around The World?
This tip is a very specific one that will apply to certain, very long journeys. If your trip is taking you completely around the globe, or at least around a large part of it, it may qualify for a round-the-world ticket.
These fares are offered by the three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and OneWorldfd. They consist of many partner airlines that can work together to get you around the world at a lower price than you would pay separately, and with better benefits.
If your trip is of this magnitude, it is definitely worth visiting their websites and plugging in your destinations to see the offers. By booking your ticket like this, you benefit from the simplicity of a single booking which allows for more flexibility and protection in case something goes wrong.
You will also normally get a free checked bag and earn frequent flier miles on the entire trip. A trip around the world will rack up tens of thousands of miles. This is enough to pay for your next vacation, and if you like free flights, then this should be the top advantage!
See Related: Ways to Book an Around the World Ticket
Part 3: Purchasing & Flying
Finally, you’ve found the cheapest ticket possible and your travel budget is alive and healthy. Congratulations! Now, we have some tips to save even more money at the end of the process, and even begin saving for future trips as well.
The Great Debate: Miles or Money?
A difficult dilemma is deciding whether to pay a cash fare or to use your precious points and miles. And if you aren’t carefully considering this, you should be. Not all reward redemptions are created equal.
The key here is to weigh out the value that your points and miles are getting for you. Don’t just focus on the cost in dollars or miles, consider both of them simultaneously. Just because you have the miles to pay for a trip doesn’t mean you should use them. What if the cash fare is exceptionally low?
A classic example is my first-ever travel credit card, the Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard. I earned nearly 80,000 bonus miles by hitting the minimum spend, and I was considering how to use it.
Most of my friends who had the card used their miles to fly on inter-island trips, such as Oahu to Maui or Kauai. This would generally cost around 15,000 miles, while the cash fare was always right around the $70 mark.
That didn’t make sense to me, because I noticed I could fly to Tahiti for 24,750 miles. The average cash fare to Tahiti was in the range of $900.
Do you notice the difference? With my 80,000 miles, I could take 5 inter-island trips and save around $350. Alternatively, I could fly round-trip to Tahiti and save $900. The latter is more than double the value!
It is very important to consider the value you are getting for your miles, but there is one instance where this rule can be overruled. If you absolutely must travel on a flight that is unusually expensive in cash, points may be the way to go. These situations could be flights around holidays or special events, and you have no alternative. Miles can save you there.
See Related: How to Earn Airline Miles Without a Credit Card
Use the Right Credit Card
This is a very important tip that goes for any flight, hotel or car rental you book, whether you are searching for the best flight deals or not! You should always be using a credit card that specifically applies to the purchase.
Many factors go into choosing a credit card to make a travel purchase. Here are a few of the big ones, but keep in mind that the list is potentially endless. You should consider your specific card options for your specific trip carefully.
- Do you have a co-branded card for the airline you are flying? Airlines like United, Delta, American, and Hawaiian include special perks when you use their credit cards on their flights, such as free checked bags or seat selection.
- Are you working towards a sign-up bonus for a new card? This is one of the few cases where you may want to not use a card that you normally would (like a co-branded one). A flight purchase could be a valuable addition to your minimum spending requirements to hit a bonus.
- Which of your cards offers the best trip protection benefits? Most travel cards offer these, such as lost luggage insurance, delayed flight protection, delayed luggage provisions, and more. Look at the benefits of your cards to see which offers the best level of coverage- this can seriously save you if you need to use it.
- Are there any spending bonus promotions running for any of your cards? Chase and American Express sometimes run offers that yield you extra points per dollar on specific purchase categories. These points currencies are very versatile, so take advantage of these offers when you see one.
- Finally, is cash-back more valuable to you at the moment? Non-travel cards often have cash-back benefits in the form of a statement credit. If that is better for your situation, there’s no harm in saving more money with this strategy.
These are just a few of the big considerations to make when it comes to credit card strategies. As you can see, it’s an important step that can not only save you on the trip you are booking but also on your next trips as well!
See Related: Best Credit Cards With Lounge Access (Ranked!)
Check Other Currencies
You might be surprised to know that sometimes, the sites that compute airfares are not perfect and can imperfectly convert currency. For international travel, it is always worth checking another currency or two that the airline offers to book in.
The old, famous trick was on Norwegian Airlines’ website before they stopped flying trans-Atlantic flights. For some reason, if you paid in Norwegian Kroner, you could almost always get a better deal. I once saved almost 20% with this trick.
It can work on other airlines as well, and if you have the time and don’t mind doing some math, it’s worth switching currencies a few times just to check it out. Make sure you use a card with no foreign transaction fees in this case.
See Related: Thrifty Traveler Review: Is Premium Worth It?
Self-Connect With Caution
We’ve thrown out a lot of creative tips when it comes to flying to alternative cities, using budget flights, and otherwise separating your trip. If you choose to book separate plane tickets and self-connect, do so with caution.
Remember that when you are not on a single reservation, your connection is not recognized by your next airline. If your first flight is delayed, you will have no recourse to amend your separate connecting flight.
Self-connecting can save you a ton of money but be sure to do it carefully. Leave yourself plenty of time to connect. Ideally, book on an airline that has several departures to your destination on the same day in case you have a cancellation.
See Related: Skiplagged Review: Is It Safe and Legit?
Sign Up For That Frequent Flier Programs
Hopefully, this goes without saying at this point. If you are taking a flight, sign up for their rewards program! There is no reason to take a flight and NOT collect miles for it.
Research the airline to see who their partners are, and you might be surprised to see the programs to which your miles can be credited. Are you taking a flight on TAP Portugal Airlines, but don’t expect to need their miles? You can add your United MileagePlus number and get credit there instead!
Know Your Passenger Rights
Many people out there don’t like to travel because they avoid the stress of potential delays, cancelations, overbookings, or lost luggage. These are definitely headaches, but if you know your rights well, then you can be reassured you are very well-protected if something goes wrong.
When an airline cancels your flight, or delays you causing you to miss a connection, they are required by law to accommodate you. That means getting you on the next available flight, even if it means putting you on a competitor’s plane. If you are stuck overnight, they have to give you a hotel room with transportation and food.
If you’ve been denied boarding, or bumped, due to overbooking, you could actually be in for quite a treat. First of all, the airline must accommodate you in the same fashion as above. But even better is that they almost always compensate you for this, and quite generously. United agents are authorized to pay up to $10,000 cash to sway volunteers into taking the next flight.
Can you imagine if a seemingly sad situation ended up paying for your next trip (or two)?
Use Schedule Changes To Your Advantage & Look Out For Upgrade Offers
Going along with the above point, a schedule change doesn’t always have to be bad. When an airline cancels or changes your flight well in advance (usually more than 14 days), this is considered a schedule change- not a delay or cancellation.
You can use this to your advantage. Try to get on a better plane or even a better booking class. You can also use the situation to better adapt to your trip in case plans have changed since booking. Airline customer service agents are often flexible in these cases and will help you out as a goodwill gesture for free.
One of my greatest success stories was going from low-cost to lie-flat luxury in first class. I booked on low-cost Level Airlines, which was not a pleasant seat. However, they changed my departure time by over four hours several weeks before the flight.
In reality, this wasn’t a big deal for me. But I wanted to use it. I called the airline, which is owned by Iberia (a full-service airline). The agent quickly accommodated me on an Iberia flight instead for no charge. I was in for free food, seatback entertainment, and an overall better experience – just for making a simple call and request.
Even better was that a few days later, I got an upgrade offer via email. Iberia would put me in first class for a 400 Euro upgrade fee. I took it, and for the price of a low-cost trans-Atlantic bus seat plus the fee, I got lie-flat luxury with Spanish wine!
Don’t ignore those email offers that come in a few days before your flight. They can be great deals and turn your long-haul sleepless night into a wonderful experience.