The secret to finding cheap flights is that there is no secret. People like to say that they found a cheap fare at “insert third-party website name here”. It may had been cheaper, but you should never book anything through a third-party website like Expedia, Kayak, etc. The reason is that if any problems come up, you’ll have to go through the third party to do pretty much anything.
Let’s say you need to change your flight. You call the airline’s customer service desk and they’ll tell you that they can’t change anything because you booked it through a third party. So, you have to call the third-party’s customer help desk, and they’ll tell you that there will be a change fee on their end on top of the airline’s change fee! In addition, you’ve probably spent lots of time on hold and calling different people. By booking through a third party, you’re simply adding an extra layer of bureaucracy in an industry that is notorious for having terrible customer service. Therefore, I tell everyone that you should only book directly with the airline.
The best and simplest tool to use is Google Flights because the interface is very polished and running searches with a lot of filters is easy. If you’re feeling a little more technical, you could also use ITA Matrix, but I personally just stick with Google Flights.
The most straightforward way to finding the cheapest flight is to simply know your market. What I mean is that you should know the average minimum and maximum cost to get to each continent from your home airport. This usually comes from experience, i.e. you constantly spend time on Google Flights for fun because you’re obsessed with traveling.
A real-life example: During my junior year of university, I had signed up for my winter quarter classes already. So, I knew when my final exams were going to be done and how long my spring break was going to be. I wanted to travel over spring break, so whenever I had free time or if I was bored in class, I would just run searches from nearby airports to all over the world. Basically, I did this every day until I found a round-trip fare to Beijing (SBA-PEK) for only $420! Santa Barbara is a regional airport, so fares are usually really expensive.
How does this apply to you? The best way to find a cheap fare is that if you know you have some time off in the future over a certain date range, just start researching on fares when you have time! Booking early doesn’t necessarily translate to cheaper fares. However, prepping early allows you to learn the market and you gain the knowledge of knowing if a price is a good deal or not. Using the “Price Graph” feature on Google allows you to see what prices have been like in the past, allowing you to have some sort of benchmark on what a good deal is. When you find a fare you like, go to that airline’s website and replicate your search results so you could book directly.
On the other hand, sometimes you may find yourself in the situation where you’re scrambling to get somewhere during peak travel season (anytime in June, Thanksgiving, Christmas) or you got really late notice that you have to be somewhere. In that circumstance, you’re not going to find something “cheap” and there isn’t much you can do besides finding the fare that is closest to $0.
PART 2A: SOME WAYS TO HELP YOU FIND CHEAPER FLIGHTS
Now, some ways that may help you out…
Splitting up flight segments - This works especially well when you’re trying to go to regions that have lots of budget airlines (Eastern Europe and some parts of Asia). Sometimes, it’s cheaper to book multiple one-way tickets and/or multi-city tickets rather than book everything on one ticket. When you book the one-way tickets, try to implement a mix of legacy carriers and budget airlines to lower the cost. Or, book an open-jaw ticket where you fly into one city and leave from another. Let’s demonstrate this with an example.
Example 1: Los Angeles to Athens (Aug 1, 2020 to Aug 31, 2020)
Booking everything on 1 ticket:
We see that the price we want to beat is $681. You’ll have to be a little crafty here, and some of this requires you to do some guess-and-check. We can try a multi-city booking and/or two round-trip tickets. What we want to do is to fill in the question mark below with the airport that yields the cheapest result:
In this case, we also could have done LAX-???-ATH-LAX or LAX-ATH-???-LAX. The key thing here is to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to clear immigration, re-clear security, and account for any delays because your 2nd flight may be in a different terminal as you are on two separate bookings.
In Google Flights, you can leave the destination blank to have it show you where it’s cheapest to fly. This feature is handy if you’re flexible on the destination but have some idea of what your dates are. Leave the destination blank and press enter, and then it will show you how much it costs to fly to various cities. You can type in “Europe” as the destination and it will only show you cities in Europe. You can also filter by price, so I used that for an easier comparison.
As you can see, London is probably our best bet. We clicked on the result and it turns out it only costs $5 more to fly nonstop vs. an 11 hour layover in Montreal. We’ll talk a little more about optimizing layovers later, but we’ll choose the $351 fare because the flight time is shorter. So now, let’s try to look for a fare that’s from London to Athens.
As you can see, we now have the following constraints. Our London to Athens flight has to depart after 10:40AM on Aug. 2, and our return flight has to get to London by 6:20AM on Aug. 31. We’ll deal with each constraint separately, but you also might want to consider maybe exploring London for a few days, and then heading to Athens. It’s up to you, but let’s assume you want to be in Athens ASAP.
Now, let’s run a search for London to Athens (Aug. 2 to Aug. 30). The dates are arbitrary, but now we want to put a filter on “Time”. Again, you want to give yourself ample time to get to the next flight, so let’s just say we want our flight to leave from 3PM or later (this is cutting it a little close, but we’ll just settle on this for the sake of this example). Now, let’s use the “Date Grid” feature.
We see that if we choose Aug. 5 to Aug. 27, it’s only $200 compared to our original search of Aug. 2 to Aug. 30, which is $306. At this point, it really depends on how flexible you are. Can you take a few days to explore London and have a little less time in Athens, or do you have to be in Athens by a certain date? This is where being flexible could save you around $100. Now, you could argue that you’ll be spending more money by staying in London for a few days. But you’ll probably be spending the same amount of money in Athens, because the two cities have a similarly comparable cost of living. For the sake of this example, let’s say you take the $200 flight.
By booking two round-trip tickets, it only costs $551 compared to $681! We saved around $130, which isn’t too bad. You could do some more tinkering to see if you could save more, but this is where the research aspect comes into play. If you had time to try all possible city combinations, you could possibly save more money.
At this point, turn your attention to the “Booking Options” area in the previous picture. You can just click “Select” to be brought to the airline’s website, but I like to replicate it separately to see if I can get the same price. I’ll like to bring up a warning where sometimes, the booking options may just say “Call a travel agent” or the price may not be what it originally said. In those cases, you’ll have to start from square one.
So, to recap: We saved money by booking two round-trip tickets, where we “nested” one round-trip “inside” the other. We lost a few days in Athens, but we got to see London. We spent $551 compared to $681.
Now, let’s try an open-jaw ticket to see if we can save some more money.
We’ll do exactly what we did earlier, except let’s run a one-way search from LA to Europe by leaving the destination blank. We find out that we can fly to Barcelona one-way for $250.
We need to find a way to get from Barcelona to Athens no earlier than 10:25AM on Aug. 2. After replicating our previous efforts, we used the “Date Grid” feature to see that we can leave on Aug. 4 for $101 compared to Aug. 2 for $140.
So, let’s give ourselves a short recap: we’re currently at $351 and still need to find our way back to LA from Athens at the end of our trip. Now, we need to do some guess-and-check. Let’s look for the ??? – LAX segment first and then look for the ATH - ??? segment. Now, why do we do it in this way? Longer flights tend to be more expensive and budget airlines in Europe are very cheap. For our flight to LA, flying out from one city in Europe over another may have dramatic cost differences. However, the price of flying within Europe is significantly more stable – even if it costs a little more to get from Athens to a more expensive European city, we can still save money on the Europe to LA segment.
To do this, we have to play around with the origin. Google Flights allows you to search multiple airports to multiple destinations. This feature is REALLY powerful when it comes to planning multi-city vacations. But for now, we just have to keep inputting multiple European cities to LA for multiple dates until we find the cheapest one.
When doing this type of guess-and-check, a good starting point is to use one-way searches and input around 4-5 big cities at a time. Then, use the “Date Grid” to see if there are cheaper fares for another date. Maybe write down the flight information somewhere so you don’t forget. Then, run a new search with 4-5 new cities except keep the one city that was cheapest. Then, rinse and repeat.
Our search shows that Barcelona to LA is the cheapest fare, on Aug. 31 for $190.
To recap, now we’re at $541. Let’s look for a segment from Athens to Barcelona with an arrival time no later than 2:50PM on Aug. 31. We do exactly what we did previously, and the result is below:
We get to Barcelona at 6:30AM, which should give us plenty of time to make our 2:50PM flight even with any delays.
In this case, we might as well had booked two round-trip tickets. However, it usually doesn’t turn out this cleanly.
So, to recap: We saved money by booking 4 one-way tickets. We lost a few days in Athens, but we got to see a little of Barcelona. We spent $653 compared to $681. Not a significant amount, but it’s still something.
A real-life example: I was traveling in Europe and wanted to do Brussels > London > Amsterdam > Copenhagen, all on one-way segments. Flying or taking the train to each destination would had cost me a lot of money. However, by using the second method, I was able to save by taking a flight from Brussels to London, and then taking long-distance buses from London to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Copenhagen. The buses were ~10+ hours overnight, but the cost savings were worth it.
We saved money by using an unorthodox method. Although we saved money with both methods, the first method gave us the most savings. The second method was a little of an anomaly, but I wanted to show you that you could book the same “thing” but in a different way which could give you a different cost.
In the second example, you could have saved even more by taking a long-distance bus or train from Barcelona to Athens. In this particular example, no buses or trains exist between Barcelona and Athens. However, you should definitely do a search for buses and trains, especially when using the second method.
Part 2B: Other methods
Sign up for a subscription service – If this seems like too much work for you, I would recommend signing up for either Scott’s Cheap Flights and/or Next Vacay, which send you emails when cheap fares come up. I personally like their services as the deals they send are pretty good. However, there have been some instances where I’ve found a deal and then SCF reports it a few days later.
Creating your own layover – This isn’t really a cost-saving measure, but it may allow you to explore another city for the same amount of money. This is a win-win situation, because you don’t have to pay extra to explore an additional city! I use this method quite a bit, as it has allowed me to explore lots of cities that I couldn’t have otherwise. However, you have to be careful of a few things:
A real-life example: I was trying to find a way to get from Cape Town to Singapore, and flights in that direction usually require a layover in either Europe or the Middle East. One of the airlines that flew that route was Emirates with a layover in Dubai. So, I played around with Google Flights to see if there was a routing I wanted.
The picture above shows that there are two flights a day from Cape Town to Dubai, and two flights a day from Dubai to Singapore. I ran a random one-way fare in mid-January and filtered it by “Airline” to only show Emirates. Based on these results, we want to choose the 15hr layover for the most optimal timing.
As you can see, adding an extra-long layover costs you nothing extra! Now, you want to go on Emirates’ website and see if you can replicate the picture above to get the same cost. Sometimes, the routing doesn’t exactly line up or the price changes from your initial search.
In general, the trick here is to pick a city where the airline has a major hub and then play around with Google Flights to see if you could get an optimal layover.
Here’s a quick list of US-based airlines and their major hubs, which are not limited to the following listed below (you could run a quick Wikipedia search to find this out as well):
For example, if you were flying to New York on United from the West Coast, you would most likely have a layover in Chicago or Houston. If you wanted to explore Houston or Chicago, you could do exactly what I did previously to see if an optimal layover exists.
Strategically booking red-eyes – To save on accommodation, simply book flights that leave late at night and arrive early in the morning. You could also do this for long-distance buses and some sleeper trains as well. I do this a lot to save some money, but you don’t want to do this too many days in a row. Some people may love it, while others may hate it. Common red-eyes include flying late evening USA West Coast flights bound for the USA East Coast, Asia, or Australia, which arrive early in the morning. Even if a red-eye only has a 3-5 hour total flight time, just think of it as pulling an all-nighter.
A very short, broad, all-encompassing summary of worldwide prices – When I talked about the concept of “knowing the market” earlier, I know the USA West Coast (LAX) the best because I’ve lived here my whole life. Now, I know how much it usually costs to fly from LA to anywhere in the world. So, I can see a good deal from a mile away. After hundreds of Google Flights searches, I’m going to try to share the things I’ve learned that could apply to anyone living anywhere. However, this is NOT a hard and fast rule – just “generalities”, if you will.
Part 2A: Some Ways to Help You Find Cheaper Flights
Part 2B: Other Methods
Next: Part 3