Spending just a bit more time and thought into how you search for cheap flights can pay of enormously.
By using different tricks and being diligent in my searching, I’ve often found international flights that were just half or a third of the regular rate. This has saved me thousands of dollars, euros, and pounds over the years!
Sometimes the key to finding the perfect deal is simply some determination and luck, as playing around with the search parameters on a flight search engine can often yield surprising results. But there are also some cool tricks and little-known search features that can significantly increase your chances of stumbling upon a sweet deal.
Here are some of the tools and tricks I like to use.
First: use the right search engines
General travel booking sites such as Expedia or Priceline are not usually the best for finding cheap flights. Since they are basically travel agents, they focus on higher-margin offers and tend not to include many budget airlines.
Researching cheap destinations
Do you want to fly somewhere cheap but you’re not sure where yet? Then there are some great tools to get you started. These won’t give you live pricing data, but they’ll give you a rough idea.
- On Google Flights, go to Discover Destinations. Enter your home airport to see price estimates for all destinations displayed on a map. (You can do something similar at Kayak Explore.)
- On Skyscanner, enter your home airport in the From field, and then type ‘Anywhere’ in the To field. You will get a list of estimated airfares.
Dates & times: be weird!
Flights are obviously the most expensive whenever there is the highest demand. That means the best way to find cheaper options is to be weird. In other words, search for days, times, or months that fewer people are searching for. (This assumes, of course, that you have some flexibility for your departure.)
Early in the week is usually cheaper to fly than on weekends. So when experimenting with different dates, try Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays for best results. But there are no hard-and-fast rules, so always play with the dates, and try adding or subtracting a few days.
This is more of an art than a science. Finding the best deal is often a matter of changing the search parameters repeatedly until you find a great option. Some flights only go on certain days (this is particularly true for some short-haul budget flights), so your best option may not be available on every day.
The month you travel in can also have a huge impact on your airfare cost. Try to travel somewhere in the shoulder season instead of the tourist high season, as it will be both cheaper and less busy.
Don’t always fly direct. You sometimes find amazing options by making just one extra stop. Last year I flew from London to Bangkok for just 320 GBP (that’s about 400 USD or EUR) by going with Turkish Airlines and making a brief 45-minute stop in Istanbul.
Use Momondo’s Flight Insight
Momondo has a cool feature called Flight Insight, which lets you take a deep dive into the cost variables for a particular route. Instead of changing your search queries by simply guessing, the Flight Insight tool gives you very useful clues as to where the cheapest options might be!
In a nutshell, here’s how to use it.
- Search for your intended flight route using any calendar date. Then click ‘Flight insight for [origin city] to [destination city]’ in the top right corner. (This is not yet available for every route, but it is for many popular ones.)
- You will see a graph showing all the factors affecting price, including seasonality, time of booking, day of the week, and airport.
- Hit the Seasonality tab for a graph showing the cheapest and most expensive months of the year to travel this route.
Use Skyscanner’s calendar mode
Skyscanner lets you do something along similar lines as Momondo’s Flight Insight, with a feature that’s a little bit hidden and not many people seem to know about.
Simply enter your departure point and destination, and then from the date drop-down box, select WHOLE MONTH. This will get you a calendar showing the estimated prices for every departure and arrival date within that month. If you’re at all flexible with your dates, pick the cheapest days to get final live prices for those dates.
When to book
According to research published by both Skyscanner and Momondo, the optimal timeframe to buy tickets is usually 5 to 6 weeks ahead of departure. This is a rule of thumb however, and it can be different on many routes.
Using a tool like Flight Insight, as mentioned above, can tell you the specifics for the route you’re searching (hit the ‘Days to departure’ tab).
Be sure to set up a Fare Alert if you’re not quite ready to book yet, but want to stay up-to-date on any price changes.
Finding cheaper airports
Always include alternative nearby airports as this can often save you money. There are a few ways you can do this:
- Search engines like Skyscanner and Momondo can automatically include nearby airports within a small radius (e.g. including all London airports). Just tick the appropriate box before you start searching.
- For alternative airports that are a bit further away you’ll have to manually search. So have a think (or look on Google Maps) and consider where else you could fly into. This is of course especially relevant if you’re going to travel around during your trip anyway, as changing your trip’s starting and end point can open up many cheaper options. For example, instead of London, try Manchester. Instead of Madrid, try Barcelona.
- Consider if the cheaper alternative airport might be across the border. For example, if you’re flying to Malaysia, it may be much cheaper to fly into neighboring Singapore instead of Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. If you’re going to Albania, you’ll have better luck flying into northern Greece than to Tirana, which has only a very small airport.
Searching for alternative airports used to be especially useful for short-haul and regional flights, as budget carriers often use secondary or non-hub airports.
However, it’s becoming increasingly useful for long-haul flights as well! Just as one example of a new trend of long haul budget flights, Norwegian Air now flies direct from London Gatwick (an alternative to London Heathrow) to Oakland International (an alternative to San Francisco International) for crazy low prices. That’s why you’ll always want to cast a wide net and try some different airports.
Using budget booking sites
Some of the booking sites linked by search engines offer great prices but aren’t that well known. I’ve sometimes had situations where small booking sites worked a little differently from the big ones like Expedia or Trivago.
Don’t be alarmed if you get an email saying they got your payment but that the ticket might not be confirmed for another hour or two. This is not some kind of scam, but a normal way that some booking sites operate. For example, I’ve had this happen with eDreams, BravoFly and Tripsta, which appear regularly as the cheapest option on Skyscanner and Momondo. They sometimes simply operate in a more manual way than the bigger brands out there.
Beyond the search engines
Not all airlines are listed on the usual search engines. This becomes especially apparent when you’re traveling far off the beaten track. While you can be pretty sure the search engines have got flights between, say, London and Berlin pretty well covered, maybe that’s not so much the case between Dushanbe and Tashkent.
(I challenge you to guess which countries those are the capitals of!)
Sometimes it can still be a good idea to search manually. And in these cases, surprisingly, one of the best tools you have for this is Wikipedia. It can tell you very quickly which routes between airports actually exist.
I often like to type in the name of my origin airport on Wikipedia as you’ll usually get a detailed table showing which airlines fly there and on which routes. This method was very useful to me when flying on less obvious routes; for instance, I found flights this way to some obscure islands in the Philippines, with some small domestic carriers that search engines haven’t yet included.
Booking one-way flights
There are some specific challenges with one-way flights when it comes to visa/immigration requirements.
Other than that, consider that a one-way flight isn’t always priced at half the cost of a return. Usually, it’s more expensive than that (e.g. around 75% of the return flight cost).
When searching for single flights, try searching the same route for a return as well. Sometimes the returns end up cheaper! I’m still not quite sure I understand why… I guess it has to do with how airlines bundle certain flights. As an example, when I was flying from Colombia to Peru it was actually cheaper to buy a return package that included a flight back to Bogota. I never used the return portion but was still way cheaper off.