Airfares usually consume the highest share of travel expenses, especially if you are a budget traveller. This is even more so for far off destinations and islands which cannot be reached by any means other than flying. Intercontinental flights can often exceed US $ 1000 for round trip tickets. Such high costs can be a significant deciding factor when we plan our holidays and which destination to visit. Yet, having flown to hundreds of cities across the world over the last decade, I have learned a few hacks which actually work and can end up helping you save a ton of money on flights. This is a guide on how to find cheap flight tickets using techniques which have been tested to work and are perfectly safe.
Note that a lot of hacks available on the internet on how to find cheap flight tickets are sometimes either old, which the Airline companies have grown too smart to let work, or are simply nothing more than myths. I have tried to make this list as comprehensive as possible and made sure to include only those tricks which are safe, secure, and work more often than not.
1. Flexibility with Season/ Day of week/ Time of day
Being flexible with when you can travel can work a long way towards saving a significant amount on flights. Flights during the holiday season, when people usually travel more, are naturally far more expensive given the higher demand. This depends on your chosen destination and where you are flying out from.
Also, destination-specific peak seasons can impact flight prices to a large extent. For example, flying to Greece in the height of Summer will be far more expensive than travelling to Greece during the winters from any part of the world.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be ideal for everyone to travel during times of least demand, but a little flexibility can work towards saving your hard-earned money. Try for shoulder seasons which usually aren’t too bad to travel to your desired destination and can help you avoid the hordes of tourists which peak seasons draw and save money with cheaper flights compared to peak season.
Flying during the middle of the week is usually cheaper than flying during weekends. This is due to higher demand for flights during weekends. Try flying out on a Thursday evening if you had earlier planned for a Friday evening or Saturday morning flight.
Lastly, do check out Red Eye flights. These are essentially flights which fly from their point of departure in the dead of night, often very late, and arrive at the destination early in the morning. Given that these might not be the most preferred hours for flying out and arriving for a lot of travellers, Red Eye flights can often be cheaper than regular hour flights.
2. Flexibility with your destination or how to get there
Now you need not necessarily dream about going to Paris and end up being somewhere in South East Asia just because the later is cheaper to fly to. By flexibility, I mean that you should look out for alternate airports close to your chosen destination. It can often turn out to be a cheaper option to fly into an airport catering to a non-touristy hub rather than flying straight into a tourist hotspot. This will, of course, necessitate the additional transportation between the alternative airport and your destination, but the savings can, at times, be well worth the effort.
For example, flying into the tiny island paradise of El Nido in the Philippines from anywhere in the country is usually expensive, given the limited number of flights arriving at the destination. However, flights to Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, are surprisingly much cheaper. Both Puerto Princesa and El Nido are on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. You will, of course, be required to take a land transfer from Puerto Princesa to El Nido but will end up saving money with little additional effort.
There is also the option to search alternative destinations close to the one that you had initially planned to visit, which might offer similar experiences at much cheaper airfares. I would suggest playing around with Flight Search Engines to find such alternate airports to fly to as well as browse through alternate destinations.
Visit Google Flights and enter your city of departure. Do not fill in any other details and click the tiny “Explore destinations” link on the right-hand side above the map.
This will lead you to map showing all the neighbouring destinations that you can fly to and the cheapest fares in the next six months to reach there. You can adjust the timeline, whether you want one-way fares to be shown or fares for round trips and so on. You can also move around the map to check flight rates for far off destinations.
This is an excellent way to plan where you want to fly to if you have a fixed budget for flying in mind and are flexible with your destination.
Once you have decided on your destination, look out for alternate airports close to it. Flights might at times be surprisingly cheaper to cities which aren’t as popular with tourists. Below are screenshots from the Philippines example stated earlier.
The cheapest flight from Manila to El Nido is priced at US $ 83. Surprisingly, the cheapest one to Puerto Princesa is priced at US $ 27. If you opt for a shared van transfer from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, you still end up saving a lot.
3. Flexibility with the flight route
Extending on what was discussed in the previous section, it often works out to be cheaper to opt for flights which require a transit rather than direct flights. This is especially true for long hauls when direct non-stop flights can be ridiculously expensive and or even altogether absent depending on the route.
Selecting flights with a stopover or requiring a transit might be a no-brainer if you stick to the same carrier. It means that you are issued a single ticket and a single PNR for the entire journey. This is so because such flights do not require you to leave the transit area at airports when changing flights meaning you won’t have to worry about the hassles of going through immigration in a third country.
However, the trick here is too manually plan a break in the journey up to your destination. For this also, you can make use of flight search engines like Google Flights and check how much of a benefit can you derive by having your route broken down into two parts. Caution should be exercised while doing this because not only do you have to budget enough time between the two flights, you also have to be aware whether you would need a visa for the country you are transiting through. This is because you have to pass through immigration more often than not when your two legs have different tickets (with different PNRs).
Remember to budget at least 3 hours between the flights and preferably transit via a country where you do not require a pre-approved visa or can transit visa-free through.
4. Flying budget
Over the last decade, budget carriers have gone from catering to regional short-haul routes to flying inter-continental. True that you miss out on some of bells and whistles that full-fare carriers offer. However, low-cost airlines sometimes offer tickets at throwaway prices.
Airlines like Air Asia, Scoot, Tiger Air, Thai Smile, Fly Dubai, Indigo, Nok Air, Lion Air, Cebu Pacific, VietJet Air, Jeju Air, and several others offer tickets at dirt-cheap prices across Asia. In Europe, RyanAir and EasyJet lead the pack while JetStar caters to Australia and New Zealand. Of course, there is the poster boy of budget carriers in the US – SouthWest.
Most of these airlines offer no-frills flights to destinations across the world. They also often run promos giving away tickets for close to nothing. However, worth noting is that a majority of these tickets do not include checked-in luggage allowance by default, at least at their lowest price point. More often than not, meals are excluded, and you probably might even need to pay for water.
At the end of the day, if saving big on flights is what matters to you, you can easily sacrifice on some of the creature comforts that full-fare flights offer and maybe even pack your meal for the flight.
Check out the website for each Airline website linked above or watch for these budget airlines and others when searching on a flight search engine.
5. Discounts for specific categories of passengers
Most airlines offer discounts to specific categories of passengers like students, youth, elderly, armed forces, and large groups travelling together. Most of these discounts are applicable on booking directly via the airline website. They may not be offered by all travel agent. It is worth checking out, especially if you fall into any one of the above categories, as the discounts offered can be substantial.
Student Universe is a website catering to students and offers discounted rates on Airlines, hotels, and tours.
6. Comparing flight fares in different currencies
I remember searching for flight tickets within Egypt a couple of years back. What surprised was that the rates published in Egypt Air website were much lower than the ones published by online travel agents and flight search engines. I later realised that the difference was because the rates on the airline website were in Egyptian Pounds. These rates were targeted towards locals, hence the low price. However, it had absolutely no restriction whatsoever on the nationality of the person booking the flight in the local currency. As such, I was able to save quite a big deal using the local Egyptian currency.
While the example cited above might not apply to all scenarios, it is worth giving a shot none the less. Try searching for fares in weaker currencies if the default currency is stronger. For example, a flight ticket in US dollars might be more expensive than the same ticket in India rupees. Of course, for this to work, keep a tab on your credit card charges for each of the currency. Contact your Bank/ Credit Card issuer if you are not sure on charges. Also, ensure that your card supports the currency you wish to transact in.
7. Book early
It is a known fact that booking closer to the date of travel usually leads to higher fares. However, booking too early might also result in you losing out on the best deal. Ideally, it is best to book three months to 6 weeks before your date of departure.
However, there is no hard and fast rule to when exactly should you book. Prices over a period of time can depend on a large number of factors. The trick here is to keep an automated watch on your preferred route using the likes of Google Flights.
Go to Google Flights and enter your preferred point of departure, your destination, and the dates on which you wish to fly.
On the next page, turn on the button which says “Track prices“. If you are logged in with your Google account, Google will email you an alert whenever there is any fluctuation in prices. However, do not hold on too long for the best possible price. Especially during holidays and times of high demand, the cheapest tickets get sold out way earlier.
8. Frequent Flier Programs and Credit Card rewards
Airline Miles or Frequent Flier programs are one of the best ways to travel for less (or often free) without spending an additional dime. While this merits an article entirely of its own, I will try and summarise some of the key ways in which you can save money using Air Miles.
One accumulates Air Miles by flying with a particular Airline or by taking part in a partner program. You can even purchase miles with real money.
Most airlines have their own Air Miles program. Many also participate in Airline Alliances Miles program and such miles can be shared across all partnering Airlines.
Air Miles accumulated can be used for getting discounts on tickets (or free tickets), for fare class upgrades, hotel stays, access to airport lounges, and much more.
Additionally, Travel Credit Cards and cards partnered with specific airlines can help you earn additional Air Miles. If used smartly, and if you travel frequently, you can end up saving a lot on your flights. You can also fly for free if you accumulate enough points.
Card Ratings has a page dedicated to travel cards recommended by Nomadic Matt. This list is only for travellers in the US but is quite an exhaustive one.
View from the Wing is a blog dedicated to travel cards and lists all current offers from these cards. One Mile at a Time also has a dedicated Travel Credit Card section. You can subscribe to either of these website’s newsletters to stay on top of all travel card offers.
9. Cheap flight mailing lists
Most airlines give you the option to subscribe to their newsletters when you visit their website. By doing this, you get to know whenever these airlines run last-minute promotions and airfare deals. While most of these offers might not be what you are looking for when you get them delivered to your inbox, you never know what clicks for you. Also, most such deals have a narrow booking window. Subscribing to these newsletters makes sure you never miss out on any offers from airlines. You might even end up deciding on a holiday destination basis an incredibly cheap fare deal that an airline has offered. Airline newsletters, at times, also offer free frequent flier miles.
Additionally, you can also check airfare deals and subscribe to alerts on any of these below-listed websites:
Note that not all the above websites cater to flights in every possible region. The likes of Airfare Watchdog, Thrifty Traveller cater mostly to the US and North American region. The rest of the website are more or less global.
10. Individual tickets
If you are a group of persons travelling together, check individual tickets prices first rather than directly going in for a group ticket option. Airlines usually price their seats in bands. As a result, when you select more than one seat at the time of booking, it will show you the rate for the highest-priced seat.
For example, if you are attempting to book three seats together, the first two of which are priced at US $ 100 each and the last at US $ 120, the booking website will quote you a price of US $ 120 for each ticket (i.e. a total of US $ 360). Now, if you go ahead and book each of these seats individually, you will end up paying a total of only US $ 320 (100 + 100 + 120) saving you US $ 40 in the process.
Worth noting is the fact that the benefit described above can only be derived if the seats that you are planning to book fall into more than one price band. Also, there is a small chance of not being able to book seats together. This happens when you book the tickets individually and select seats at the time of booking.
11. Skimp on luggage
My first advice here would be to travel hand luggage only. While this might not be doable for everyone, it is very much possible, even for long term travellers. With optimised packing and sticking to only the necessities, serious travellers avoid the need to carry around a massive case with them wherever they go. Travelling with only a carry on luggage ensures that you do not pay any extra even when flying budget carriers.
Most airlines allow a carry on luggage of around 7 Kg in weight. This should roughly equate to a 35 Litre backpack. Also, most airlines, in general, allow you to carry a small laptop bag or a hand purse in the cabin apart from your primary carry on luggage. Keeping these restrictions in mind and packing smartly, you should be able to go a long way flying without any checked-in baggage.
Finally, if you are sure that you need checked-in luggage, and your budget carrier does not include it as part of the tickets, make sure to have it as an add-on. It always makes sense to pre-book any additional checked-in luggage space that you might need. Whether you are flying with a budget carrier or full fare, prices for extra luggage at the airport are almost always higher.
12. Incognito flight browsing
This is one of the most popular hacks used by a lot of frequent flyers to get around the fact that airlines increase the prices of tickets if you repeatedly keep searching for a route. The extent to which this is true is debatable. However, there is no harm in actually executing the transaction from a browser which supports Incognito mode.
Cookies are small files which web browsers store, containing information about the user’s interaction with a particular website and his or her preferences. These help websites identify their users and customise content for them.
Most modern browsers like Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari support Incognito feature/ Private browsing mode. What it essentially means is that cookies are disabled in the incognito mode and browsers won’t be able to track you as an individual. As such, repeated searches won’t impact the pricing for a ticket.
Do remember that this won’t work if you are logged into your account with an Online Travel Agent. It also does not work if your agent or airline tracks you using your IP.
On Firefox, one can navigate to File -> New private window or use the shortcut: shift + command + P. On Google Chrome, click the wrench shaped icon in the top right corner and click on ‘New incognito window’. Alternatively, use the shortcut: ctrl + shift + N. On Safari, navigate to File -> New private window or use the shortcut: shift + command + N.
13. Error Fares
Not many people have heard about error fares. Even fewer have actually seen them. But they do exist and can get you a ridiculously high amount of discounts.
Error fares are simply pricing errors made by Airlines. They usually exist for only a short amount of time before they are rectified. Users who are quick to discover such error can benefit from the mistake and book a valid ticket at an absurdly low price.
Such errors are primarily currency conversion errors, numerical errors (e.g. a zero at the end of the fare being dropped off), or technical glitches by travel agents and airline booking platforms. They can even be human errors while publishing fares.
While error fares can show up in any airline, travel agent, or flight search engine website, there is a better way to track them. Check out websites like Fly4Free and SecretFlying. These sites regularly list such low fares and make them available for you with a consolidated view. You can even enable their alert, subscribe to their newsletters or follow them on Social media to ensure that you never miss out on such deals. However, it is worth noting here that Airlines might not always honour tickets booked against error fares. But more often than not, they do end up incurring a little loss. This is to avoid any legal ramifications associated with cancelling such tickets.
14. Throwaway tickets
This is an interesting way of saving money on flights but comes with a lot of caveats. Throwaway tickets are multi-legged tickets where you discard or cancel the final legs/legs of the journey and drop off midway.
This is applicable in scenarios where the direct tickets to your preferred destination are more expensive than tickets for flights to destinations which include the place you wish to visit as a transit point. While you purchase the ticket to the final destination, you may simply choose to drop off midway and not fly the remaining part of the journey.
Direct flights to popular destinations are often priced higher, especially during peak season. Surprisingly enough, flights which use this destination as only a transit point and further connect to other less popular destinations turn out to be cheaper.
An example of this be – suppose you wish to fly to Bangkok from London, and you find that the ticket is priced at US $ 500. However, another flight to Ho Chi Minh City from London, which requires a transit and a change of flight in Bangkok turns out to be cheaper at US $ 400. In such a scenario, one may simply choose to not fly further from Bangkok and cancel the remaining leg of his or her journey.
Such an endeavour, however, is fraught with risks. You cannot check-in any luggage for such tickets as they will directly be delivered to the final destination. You also cannot use this trick if you wish to book a return ticket, as skipping a leg of your onward journey will lead to cancellation of your return leg as well. Finally, you might run into problems with immigration if they somehow see that your final destination is not the airport where you have decided to terminate your journey.
From a legal standpoint, you are perfectly eligible to skip a leg. I believe it’s worth taking the risk if the savings are substantial.
Skiplagged is a website which can help you find such flights to less popular cities with your preferred destination as a point of transit.
15. 24-hour rule
A lot many airlines these days have a free 24-hour cancellation rule. This allows you to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of booking. It means that if you see a dramatic fall in ticket prices for the route that you had booked for, you can cancel the previous one within 24 hours and book the cheaper ticket for the same route.
Set a price alert with the flight search engine or your online travel agent for 24 hours after booking your ticket to check if there are any significant fall in prices for tickets to your destination.
Note that not all airlines offer this 24-hour free cancellation option. Few of the airlines extend this benefit to customers who book directly via the airline’s website. A majority of US carriers do offer this option, and so do a few of the major international airlines. Check individual websites of airlines to confirm.
16. Round trip v/s 2 one-way tickets
It is not set in stone that a round trip ticket is always cheaper than 2 one way tickets. In fact, it is often the case that 2 one way tickets turn out to be more affordable.
When you have both the legs of your journey planned and confirmed beforehand, check if buying two one way tickets work out to be cheaper than a return ticket. However, if you do not have a planned date of return, or you expect a fall in prices, you can even book the ticket for the return leg later. In the end, it’s always advisable to set flight alert to keep a constant tab on flight price changes.
Finding the best price for your flight and saving on one of the most significant expenses for a budget traveller requires a lot of flexibility with your travel plans. It also depends on how willing you are to sacrifice on creature comforts. Use your time judiciously and do not spend more than an hour a day airfare hacking. Ultimate time is money and how you best make use of it is totally on you. Happy flying!
Do let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, or feedback in the comment section below. You can also reach out to me by filling in the form in the Contact page. Finally, if you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider sharing it on your favourite social media handle.