How to Find Cheap Flights

As the go-to guy for many of my coworkers, family, and friends for finding a low fare for the next business or pleasure trip, I figured I’d write a post on some ways to work the system to get the lowest fares possible. I am often on Kayak and ITA Matrix myself, looking for the most economical options for my next adventure abroad. As my experience has improved, there are many tricks and suggestions that I have learned to guarantee that I am getting the best fare. Here is my advice, some ubiquitous and some unique, picked up and honed almost to a science, for finding the best fares, whether the flight is domestic or international, short haul or long haul, and first class or economy.

  • Be Flexible With Dates – Unless you get lucky on the first try, you will almost undoubtedly find a more inexpensive fare if you rearrange the dates; and even if you are lucky on the first try, you would not know it until you continued and broadened your search. If you can be a bit flexible with your departure and/or return dates, you will probably find a cheaper flight option. Another thing to consider is that many rates, especially promotional and economy rates have a stipulation where a Saturday or Sunday night is required to obtain that lowest price. Returning home on Friday or Saturday is sometimes the most expensive time of the week. Try middle of the week searches, especially Tuesdays, if you can allow for it. Also, many flight search engines have an option for flexible travel dates, most commonly the +/- 3 day option; activating this option lets the search engine search up to three days on either end of both your departure and return dates. Basically, it searches a full week around each date. Some of the better search engines, like Kayak, give you more control, by allowing you to configure each date(departure and return) with either +/-1, +/-2, +/-3, or using the exact date that you specified to begin with; so, maybe you have flexibility on your departure date, but you must arrive home on a fixed date. These configurations let you do that. If you are planning a trip for some time in the future perhaps a month or more from now, some advanced search engines let you search a whole month’s worth of dates. You specify what 5 week period you want to search, and then you give the number of dates that you want the length of your trip to be; you can say “5” for five nights, or to be more flexible, you can say something such as “3-7”, which instructs the search engine that you will consider trips of a length that is between three and seven days, no more than 7 days, and no less than 3 days. If you are completely flexible, such as the trip is not because someone is dying, try to book tickets during off-peak or low seasons; holidays and summers can cost a fortune. Finally, be flexible with the travel times, if possible. Never search using parameters that limit times of the day, such as “early morning” or “early evening”. Much of the time, early morning and late night “red-eye” flights are the least expensive, as it is the least desirable for many travelers.
  • Be Flexible With Airports – If a traveler is blessed by living in metropolitan area that has multiple airports, that traveler should take advantage of that perk by not limiting searches to only the closest airport. Many times, flights can be found cheaper at other airports; If you’ve got two airports in town, that’s a 50/50 chance of a cheaper flight at the other airport, roughly, right? Also, in large metropolitan areas with two or more airports, some airlines may only utilize slots in one of the airports, and searching only one airport might completely ignore an entire airline. For example, I live in New York City, so as far as traveling goes, I am one of the most fortunate people in the world. There are three major airports here(4 if you count Philly), as well as 4 other midsize airports in the NYC metro area. Though JFK is the closest, I may miss out on great fares if I did not include EWR and LGA in my search, at least; I should also include ISP, HVN, SWF,  and HPN in my search to really ensure that I receive the best fare options. Not only should you look at all the local options at your departure locality, but you should also research the destination to see if there are nearby options that you would consider. Many search engines make this process simpler by allowing you to activate a setting which will enable the tool to look up all airports automatically. A good piece of information to keep in mind is the fact that most low-cost carriers will use more or only use the smaller, and thus cheaper, airports.
  • Be Flexible With Routes/Layovers – The more flexible you are with an entire trip, the better, so why not be flexible with the route, too? Similar to the flexibility between airports, make sure you allow yourself ample room for different, possibly longer routes. This means that you should not limit the total trip time, if you can help it, as that will usually up the price. Also, choosing only nonstops will most likely display more expensive flights. If you can stand the layovers, let them happen; and if you are tough and flexible enough to allow for 2 or more layovers, this will ensure that you are getting the best fares, at least in this category. More layovers amount to more miles, so it can be a little perk if you are a member of the airline’s frequent flier program.
  • Be Flexible With Airlines/Carriers – As a traveler, you are probably going to make sure that you earn miles or points on your next flight, no matter what program you use. However, many fliers may limit their search to only the airline or airline alliance whose program they are a member of, so that they can build up rewards in one program. This will undoubtedly give them a fare that is not the most economical, though again, if you are lucky, maybe the cheapest flight is the airline or affiliate airline whose program you are a member of. But, to be safe, first search without factoring out airlines.
  • Don’t Be Flexible With Airlines/Carriers – Huh?!? Didn’t you just say that you should be completely open with choice of airlines to get the best price? Yes, and you should first search ALL airlines before this. However, sometimes the rewards from a frequent flier program are more valuable than the money you save with the cheapest airline. Especially if you are a heavy frequent flier in a program, it may make more sense to pay a bit more money on your carrier and earn rewards that you prefer than to earn reward mileage in a program that you barely use. This strategy all comes down to your discretion and threshold. You need to determine for yourself how much cheaper the cheapest option is than the flight from your program’s airline. If it’s only $30 or $40, it may well be worth the higher cost, because you may eventually use the mileage earned towards a free flight in the future. A long haul flight has the potential to earn much more mileage, so sometimes it is worth even more just to fly your program’s namesake to rack up those miles. Another thing to consider, especially if you travel often enough to potentially obtain elite status with a particular frequent flier program, is that once you are an elite member, many programs give you bonus miles and seat upgrades and priority boarding, among other things. These perks may well be worth the higher per-flight price, but it all depends on your sense of value. Whatever airline you end up going with, make sure that you are a member of their frequent flier program, so at least you have the opportunity to earn rewards in the future.
  • Book Flights Early – Flights generally start creeping up in price 21, 14, and 7 days prior to the flight, with small changes between those times. The closer it comes to your travel dates, the higher the price will be, generally. In addition to booking early, try to do your price shopping midweek, like a Tuesday or Wednesday, which tend to have the best prices, as this is when many airlines run sales and make price changes. Airlines also stagger their seat prices, which means that they offer a specific number of seats at a certain price until it sells through, then raise the price to the next bar, whatever it is, and do this again and again until either the flight is sold or the flight departs.
  • Last Minute Flight Deals – Again, I am contradicting my last statement to give you another price option. Though most times flights go up in price as the departure gets nearer, there are some instances where airlines may cut costs as the date arrives. Many airlines may do this when seats don’t seem to be selling, as it is better to have a passenger with their ass in the seat for a cheap price than to not obtain any revenue for the seat at all. You should never wait until the last minute for a flight that you are planning; rather, the spontaneous drop in price(typically occurring in the week before the flight) should coincide with a spontaneous travel plan, one that you wouldn’t mind if it didn’t work out. For example, look up last minute flight deals as you are approaching a weekend where you have no plans, so why not go to Vegas? You may find an unbelievable price, who knows?
  • Use A Variety Of Search Tools – We live in a time where there is an abundance of travel companies vying to find the lowest fare for your next trip, so that you will book through them and they can earn their commission. However, many people just use the most colorful and popular engines such as Travelocity and Orbitz. There are several problems with this. First, you may be missing out on the most inexpensive flight if you don’t use several search engines. Secondly, some booking sites don’t have relationships with every airline. For instance, at the time of this writing, American Airlines’ flights and fares are not even shown on Orbitz or Expedia, due to a dipute between the companies. American Airlines has some of the lowest fares for many city pairs, and using Expedia or Orbitz will factor out American Airlines. Lastly, each search engine does not have every flight search option; using several sites to research the price will ensure that you see every option. Sites like Kayak or Mobissimo are great because they aggregate search results from a multitude of sites, kind of like searching many sites at once, though you should still not only use one.
  • Try Searching The International Site Of The Airline– Do this, especially if the carrier whose flight you’re thinking of booking is an overseas carrier. For example, I searched for a flight recently on Air France. I was shocked to find that the search on U.S. site) differed in price quite a bit with French site). Though many day combinations had similar prices(once the exchange rate is considered), there were some dates where one version of the site was much more expensive than the other. Also, know how valuable your currency is. As of the time of this writing, the USD has been losing value against the EUR. Though it is much more work, calculating the international rates may save you a significant amount. If you use an airline whose home country has a currency much weaker than your own, it may be advantageous to search their country’s version of the site.
    The top is a snapshot of, the bottom is Relatively, these are the American and French versions of the site. Even with exchange rates factored in, it is clear that one version of the site may be more economical than the other on certain dates.
  • Look for Student Rates – Sites such as Student Universe and STA Travel may have cheaper fares than other sites show, allowing students to save a few extra bucks. Though you are supposed to be a student to obtain these fares, some sites don’t even bother verifying your enrollment; you may be able to get a discounted student fare even if you are not a student.
  • Sign up for Promotional Emails – A great passive way to find the best deals is to sign up for airlines’ emails, especially your favorite airlines’ whose program you may be a member of. We all have enough junk getting routed into our inbox as it is, but these emails are a great resource, as they let you in on promotions the minute that they become available. Many people already subscribe, so promo fares may not last too long. An email subscription will allocate you additional time to consider the fare before that sale expires or sells out. A helpful tip to keep your mailbox clutter free is to create a folder, name it something like “travel”, and make a rule in your email account, if you can, that automatically routes all travel-related mail there. When going in to your frequent flier account online, make sure you fill out the “preferences” section, such as the one which asks you what your home airport is, and perhaps which are your top airports to fly to. There may be special targeted offers that the airline will only send to a select group of subscribers which relate in some way to a specific airport. In August, I received an offer from Delta on my birthday to earn an additional 2500 Skymiles if I would purchase a ticket sometime in the next month.
  • Book Roundtrips, Not One-Ways – Booking a roundtrip flight will almost always be cheaper than booking two one-ways. There are several answers why this is usually the case. For some airlines, they assume that someone booking a one-way ticket is most likely a business traveler, and thus can pay more. Also, a roundtrip they are selling two flights, rather than one, so they can lower the price due to the ratio. Another reason is some airlines don’t offer discounts on the one-way fares, as it is not common, and there is no chance of any kind of Saturday or Sunday night stay, which often makes roundtrips less expensive. If you are leaving somewhere for an indefinite amount of time, or permanently, sometimes a roundtrip is even cheaper than a single one-way ticket. Make sure try both options(searching roundtrip and one-way) when you need only one-way, and you can throw the other ticket away if redemption is not cost-effective.
  • Check Out Auction Sites – Sites like allow you to bid on a seat for a specific set of dates. This is great for when you input an unreasonably low fare, just to see if it will work. The only drawback to these kinds of sites is that they require you to give you credit card info before the search commences; once you start the search, you bought the ticket if they accepted your offer. Sometimes they give you inconvenient times or dreadful airlines like Spirit. When I use Priceline, for example, I enter my bid price of $100 for New York to Beijing. This unreasonably low fare would probably end up rejected, but if they accepted it, the resulting airline/times/layovers could not make me unhappy that I bought a ticket to China for $100.
  • Get Bumped – Bumping is the term used to describe when someone loses their seat, voluntarily or involuntarily, usually due to an oversold flight. Though this does not sound fun for most people, some savvy frequent fliers who have extra time to spare volunteer to get bumped, as the airline compensates in some way, usually by giving a voucher for money off a future flight. Generally, they compensate up to half of the original ticket cost, which is a big deal, if you have no pressing concerns at the destination. In September, 2010, on a flight with TACA from JFK to BOG, my plane departed JFK and then had to immediately return due to low cabin pressure. This is not bumping, but I had to take the next flight out, which was the following day, and the compensation level is the same. I was given a hotel room to stay at near the airport, food vouchers for dinner and breakfast the next morning, and a $200 voucher toward a future TACA flight. That was well worth it for me, as I was going for 10 days, and could afford to cut it short by a day.
  • Keep Checking – If you followed the rule of booking a flight early, you should have enough time to come back and check again. Booking a flight on the first round of research may cause you to forget a site or not see a new promo. As long as there is still a bit of time before the intended departure date, flight prices can fluctuate, both up and down, and you may find that it went down the second or third time searching.