How to Find Cheap Flights Without Wasting Your Time
It's easy to spend hours in front of a screen looking for cheap flights and yet be unable to shake that niggling feeling that there's still a better deal out there. It can be downright frustrating to think you might be overpaying tens or even hundreds of dollars for a flight that someone else is scooping up for a bargain, especially when some websites would lead you to believe that there's a secret formula to finding a cheap flight, or a single best day of the week and time to book. Stressing over this kind of stuff takes the joy out of travel for me. However, there's a lot of information out there that is either outdated or was never true in the first place.
After dozens of flights over the years, I've settled into a pattern that serves me well for finding cheap flights. It's simple and doesn't consume hours of my time. I won't guarantee that it will find the maximum cheapest fare every time, but shaving those last few percent off the price isn't worth the time and stress in my opinion. Time has value too.
Consider an indirect travel route
One of the easiest ways to consistently fly cheaper, potentially hundreds of dollars cheaper for long-haul flights, is to find an indirect route to your destination. For example, at the time of writing this, the cheapest round-trip direct flight from Taipei, Taiwan to my former home of Asheville, NC in the United States is $1,249 USD. If I fly to Charlotte instead, which includes a stop in Guangzhou and San Francisco, it drops to $970, and then it's only a $30 bus to Asheville. An easy $249 saved! Better yet, I can fly round-trip to New York with one stop in Fuzhou for only $525. From there, a round-trip flight to Asheville is $98. That's a total trip cost of $623, a savings of $626 less than flying direct, or 50%! Or if you want to avoid Chinese airlines, there's the option of flying to New York with one stop in Hong Kong for $781, then to Asheville for $98. Still a savings of $370.
There's some additional considerations here. First, booking two flights instead of one means that if you were to experience an unexpected delay or cancellation during the first leg of your journey, the airlines of your second flight will not bear any responsibility if you miss your flight with them. Leaving ample time of at least several hours between flights will minimize this risk, or you can play it really safe by scheduling a day of sightseeing between the flights. Another consideration is that savings on indirect flights tend to favor longer routes. For shorter routes serviced by budget airlines, you're less likely to find the inconvenience of a detour to be worthwhile or even more economical, especially on an already low-cost ticket.
To find a cheap indirect flight, I start by checking the cost of flights to cities with major airports in my destination country that serve as the cheapest transport hubs, or even cities in neighboring countries. I accomplish this by using Skyscanner and setting the destination to "everywhere" and selecting the whole month I'll be traveling in. In the results, I then expand the destination country and neighboring countries to see which cities are the cheapest to fly to. These cities have airports that flights regularly route their connection stops through, because it saves airlines money too. If they're already doing it, just cut out the middle man and pocket the savings! Once I've identified the cheapest major cities, it's just a matter of seeing which one offers the best low-cost flight to my final destination. Momondo comes in very handy here. Another option is Google Flights. Just click the map and set your destination so you can view prices to all nearby cities directly on the map.
Be flexible on the dates and times of your flight
By far one of the largest savings factors for cheap flights is also the most straightforward: be flexible in your trip planning. Flight prices are constantly fluctuating as airlines fine-tune their offerings to remain competitive against competition and adapt to the ebb and flow of customer demand. Because of this ongoing process, there is no single day of the week or time of day to consistently find cheaper flights. It shouldn't be surprising, however, that flying on weekdays will generally be cheaper than weekends since less people will be able to fly during common work days. The same goes for off-seasons versus summer and holidays.
As with most things in life, convenience comes at a cost. If you are determined to fly on a specific day at a specific time, then you will severely limit your probability of finding cheap flights. Most of my flights are on weekdays during very early or late hours. It's an inconvenience for sure, but sometimes flying just one day sooner or one day later can result in a fare that is half the cost of other dates in the same range. One hundred percent of my domestic and international flights of 5 hours or less have been under $200 USD, and many have been under $100.
To find the cheapest day, I use Skyscanner as a starting point and select "whole month" when choosing travel dates. Then it's just a matter of playing with the departure and return dates on the calendar to find the cheapest combination, or the single cheapest departure day if it's a one-way flight. If you're really flexible, you can even further refine the search to "cheapest month". Once I've found the cheapest dates, I cross-check them with Momondo to see if it can beat the price.
Book your flight early, but not too early
As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. Seat availability on planes highly correlates with cost, and many airlines offer "early bird" or "super saver" specials for travelers who book in advance. How far in advance should you book? Two months is usually sufficient to lock in a good price before fares start to rise. Closer to one month is when things start getting risky. Sure, you could find a hugely discounted last-minute fare for an unsold seat if you keep holding out, but that requires a lot of luck or a lot of searching (or both), neither of which is worth the risk to me when I'm trying to plan a trip.
Booking very far in advance isn't necessarily better, as there will be less urgency for the airline to sell the seats. There is a good reason to do so sometimes though, and that is seasonal popularity. This is likely to affect accommodations even sooner than flights in my experience. For example, hostels, Airbnb rentals, and hotels fill up quickly during spring and autumn in Kyoto for cherry blossom and autumn foliage viewing, easily two months in advance for some places. Getting the best savings on a cheap flight won't feel like such a deal if you're only left with the most expensive lodging options. In this case, booking a flight three or even four months in advance makes sense, and should still net some good savings. Researching seasonal surges in tourism and major national holidays for your destination will help you plan accordingly.
Fly with budget airlines
Most cheap flights of several hours or less are offered by budget airlines, also known as low-cost airlines or discount carriers. Don't let the name worry you, budget airline safety is on par with the rest. They are able to offer cheaper flights because they operate on a different business model. Think of it as just the flight without all the bells and whistles. You can still have the extras, but you'll have to pay for it. This is something to pay close attention to during checkout, because it's common to be charged for optional things like checked baggage, meals, seat selection, flight insurance, credit card usage, and even printing a boarding pass, although the last one is less common. If you need those things, then keep an eye on the total price, because it could easily cost as much as a non-budget carrier. The only fee that might be impossible to avoid is the credit card transaction fee, and some budget airlines charge much more than the standard 2% or so.
Another difference is that budget airlines typically service shorter routes with smaller planes. This translates into less legroom, although you can pay extra for that too, of course. On the plus side, at least the flight is shorter, so your knees shouldn't cramp up too much. One last point, and an important one, is that budget airlines usually have a different refund policy. That is, it's usually their policy to not refund. This makes them a bad option if you're just looking for a cheap, refundable ticket to show for proof of onward travel and then cancel. For that, you're better off booking a more expensive but fully refundable ticket with a regional carrier. Just watch out for any non-refundable booking fees.
Budget airlines go to great lengths to keep costs low, so not all of them appear on airfare aggregator websites, which cost them referral fees. Some only publish their fares on their own websites, such as Southwest Airlines. Others may appear in third-party searches, but still reserve their lowest fares for their own websites. It can pay to check with these directly. This can of course be time-consuming though, and this guide is about finding cheap flights in minimal time. I find that Skyscanner and Momondo include the majority of budget airlines in their search, so I primarily rely on them and just manually search a few they are known to miss. Still, if you want to check budget airlines directly, here are some of the major ones around the world.
- Air Asia, Airblue, Air India Express, Air Seoul, Cebu Pacific, China United Airlines, Citilink, Eastar Jet, GoAir, HK Express, IndiGo, Jeju Air, Jet Airways, Jetstar, Jin Air, Lion Air, Lucky Air, Nok Air, Peach, Scoot, Skymark Airlines, Solaseed Air, SpiceJet, Spring Airlines, Tiger Air, Vanilla Air, VietJet Air, West Air
- airBaltic, Buta Airways, easyJet, Eurowings, Flybe, French Bee, Iberia Express, Jet2.com, Laudamotion, Norwegian Air, Pegasus, Pobeda, Ryanair, SmartWings, Transavia, Volotea, Vueling Airlines, Wizz Air, WOW air
- Air Canada Rouge, Air Transat, Allegiant Air, Flair Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Interjet, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, Swoop, VivaAerobus, Volaris, WestJet
- Azul Brazilian Airlines, EasyFly, Flybondi, Gol Transportes Aéreos, JetSmart, Norwegian Air Argentina, Sky Airline, Viva Air, Wingo
Purchase your flight in local currency
When booking a flight from abroad, some airlines will give you the option of paying in the local currency or using the currency of your home country/credit card. In most cases it is better to pay in the local currency because you'll get a better exchange rate. Keep in mind that if you pay with a credit card, it will probably be considered a foreign transaction, so it's best to use a card that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee, which is typically about 3%. However, even if you do have to use a card that charges a foreign transaction fee, you're still likely to save more money by choosing to pay in local currency, and the card company could very well charge the fee regardless of the chosen currency.
This is a situation in which you might want to notify your card company before making the purchase, to avoid triggering automatic fraud detection measures. If the payment is declined though, it's nothing a quick call to your card company can't fix.
Email-only specials and cashback
Some deals you may only hear about if you're subscribed to an airline's mailing list. I sign up for email offers from airlines that I fly with frequently. They usually run special 24-hour discounted flights a few times a month. They also periodically run some insane specials like a limited number of domestic flight tickets for less than $10 USD. I don't consider those to be an efficient means of finding cheap flights, as the tickets sell out very quickly and the traffic often breaks the website. On the other hand, if you're one of the lucky ones to grab the deal in time, it's an unbeatable cheap flight with no searching required.
If you use cashback websites like Befrugal, Ebates, or TopCashback for online purchases made from the United States, then be sure to check if they offer cashback or coupons for any airfare booking services you use or airlines that you frequently fly with. For bookings made from outside the United States, you probably won't see any benefit.